What’s the difference between a vision and a mission?
Having a clear vision or mission statement can be a great way to provide focus, direction and alignment for you, your team, or your business.
But what’s the difference between a vision and a mission? And which one do you need right now?
In this post, we’ll break through the confusion and reveal the big dirty difference between a vision and a mission so you can choose the right tool for the task in front of you.
We’ll compare examples from Martin Luther King and John F Kennedy, plus several corporate and personal vision statements and mission statements.
The Great Vision and Mission Quiz
Let’s get started with a quick quiz. I’ll share seven examples and as you watch you can say to yourself whether it’s a vision or a mission. There are two well-known social or political examples, three corporate examples and two personal statements. Here goes…
- Martin Luther King’s I have a dream speech. Vision or Mission?
- John F Kennedy’s speech where he announces to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth by the end of the decade. Vision or Mission.
- Trip Advisor – to help people around the world plan and have the perfect trip.
- Target – Help all families discover the joy of everyday life.
- Spotify – To unlock the potential of human creativity
- To help save the planet
- To enable students to become healthy adults
Vision or Mission Quiz Answers
How did you go? Were they mostly vision statements or mission statements?
The good news here is that for whichever answer you gave, you are right. Huh?
If you think MLK’s dream speech is a vision, then you’re right. And if you think it’s a mission, you’re right too.
And for the corporate examples, the companies that created them call them their mission statement. But they also fit the criteria for being a vision statement.
Are you confused right now? That’s okay, I was too until I dug into the origins, definitions, and meanings of both words. Here’s what I found.
The Definition of Vision
According to Oxford, the basic definition of vision comes from the Latin ‘to see’.
And the alternate definitions tend to bounce off this starting point. For instance, to see can mean:
- Through our eyes when we see physical things
- It can also mean seeing things via a dream or a trance
- Or through your imagination.
These are all ‘visions’ and they include seeing a possible future. That’s where a vision statement comes in. It’s your statement of the future you see and want to create.
Examples of Vision Statements
Based on this definition all seven examples can be seen as vision statements.
In his ‘I have a dream’ speech, Dr King is sharing his vision of how he sees the world. Quotable lines include:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!
You can’t get clearer than that as an example of a vision statement.
(Full transcript of King’s speech here)
And JFK is clearly sharing his vision for the future of America and that includes landing on the moon.
We chose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard. Because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept.
And it’s the same for our other examples: vision, vision, vision, vision, and vision.
Four Qualities of Vision Statements
As visions, they tend to have these four qualities.
- A vision is about the world you want to see – a worldview.
- They are general statements – there is no specific or measurable result being mentioned.
- They are a direction to follow, not a destination to reach.
- And that means they can never be fulfilled.
It’s like wanting a happy marriage. It’s a vision of what you want, you can work at it every day, but you never get to the finish line and say ‘we made it, we’re done’.
A Comparison of Vision and Mission
Now, I bet you’ve heard the term ‘Mission accomplished’. There have been a few memes about this over the years.
And if we simply took this aspect of missions being able to be accomplished, then we might compare Visions and Missions like this.
- A Vision is a worldview and a mission is a result.
- Visions are general and missions are specific.
- Visions are directions and missions are destinations.
- And Visions can never be achieved whereas you can achieve a mission.
This is the dirty big difference between a vision and a mission. It’s a simple way to compare and contrast.
And JFK’s example of sending someone to the moon is therefore a clear mission.
In a speech to congress in 1961, Kennedy stated the goal as: “…I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieve the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.
It’s a specific result and destination that can be achieved – and it was.
End of story, job done.
But of course, life is never that clean and simple. And there wouldn’t be such confusion about the difference between a vision and a mission if that was all there was to be said.
So what are we missing here?
The Definition of Mission
We’ve already looked at the definition of vision, but what’s the definition of mission?
It might surprise you to know that it comes from the Latin for ‘send’.
It originates from sending missionaries on assignments to go out into the world and spread the faith – especially a Christian one.
This gives us three big definitions of a mission:
- An important assignment.
- A big aim or ambition.
- And a vocation or calling.
If we just took the first two – an important assignment or a big ambition – our comparison of mission accomplished fits neatly here.
But the third one, ‘a vocation or calling’ doesn’t. A vocation or calling is more like a vision. It’s describing how we see ourselves in the world and in the future. It’s a general direction and it’s something that we never fully achieve.
Similarities and Differences between Vision and Mission
When I started researching this video, I thought that vision and mission were like this – two distinct and separate things. This is true when we define a mission as an assignment.
But what I found was that mission is actually two different things. It can be either a specific assignment or a general vocation.
When we view a mission as a vocation, what is a vision and what is a mission tends to overlap and blur. That is the reason why the examples in our quiz can be both a vision and a mission. And this is why there is a lot of confusion about what is a vision and a mission.
The Best Way to Use a Vision and a Mission
And the big question, how should you use them?
I think Spotify has the answer. Previously I only shared the short version of the Spotify mission statement: to unlock the potential of human creativity. But here’s the fuller version.
To unlock the potential of human creativity – by giving a million creative artists the opportunity to live off their art and billions of fans the opportunity to enjoy and be inspired by it.
Spotify has included both the visionary aspect of a worldview or a calling and the assignment quality of a mission to marry them together into a single mission. They have combined both qualities into one.
More on Vision and Mission
Well, there you have it, the big dirty difference between a vision and a mission. Hopefully, now you can see both the similarities and differences plus the reason for all of the confusion.
And here are some related posts/videos on visions, manifestos and purpose to help you create your future so you can take inspired action.
- Create your personal vision statement in 4 simple steps (or is that a personal mission statement?).
- Thought Leadership Content – What is a Manifesto?
- Purpose for Business Experts – Four Levels
What are your thoughts? Is MLK’s I have a dream speech a vision or a mission? And JFK’s speech to send a man to the moon – vision or mission?