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Leadership Communications: The Importance Difference Between Mission, Purpose

In articulating their mission and purpose, business leaders often confuse the two. As Fast Company points out, the mission is what an organization is trying to accomplish. The purpose is why.

The difference is central to a key component of CEO communication: The clarity that employees, shareholders, and the public require.

Key Differences: Company Examples

Another key difference is that a company’s mission spans time. Purposes, though, evolve and change, but always look to the future. The Gates Foundation, for example, has a mission of eradicating diseases in many areas of the country, to improve health and well-being. The ultimate purpose of the Foundation’s mission, though, is to unlock the intelligence and talents of people who might otherwise have died from endemic diseases.

The Walt Disney Company’s mission statement is simple. Its mission is to be a global leader in producing and providing both entertainment and information, and to be creative and innovative in both.

So the mission encompasses every Lion King, Snow White, and Princess Ariel. But the purpose was something Walt Disney actually thought long and hard about, engaging many people in the articulation of it. According to the Disney Company’s blog, the mid-1950s saw the first articulation of the company’s purpose: “to create happiness for other people.”

As the blog points out, that pinpoints another key aspect of business purpose: it unifies provider and providee. “To create happiness for other people” is general, but it can apply to every employee in the Disney universe, from the car parking attendants to the CEO. It can apply to every customer who has ever seen a Disney movie or bought a pair of Mouseketeer ears.

Purpose, such as environmental sustainability, can unite employees and customers.

One reason people tend to confuse the terms is that mission sounds as if it would be lofty and general, while purpose sounds as if it would be specific and goal-driven. In many organization’s actual statements, however, these are reversed.

The site of sustainability-driven apparel maker Patagonia, for example, offers as the mission statement a dedication to building the best product, not causing harm, and utilizing business to create solutions to environmental problems.  A reader is left to infer the purpose: because there is an environmental crisis, and it needs, in the minds of company leaders, to be fixed.

Patagonia, which Fast Company sites as a model, has a further articulation of its purpose, called “Our Reason for Being,” in which it sites reverence for the earth’s beauty and its original customers, hikers and surfers, and their activity-inspired minimalism. This purpose, like Disney’s, unifies both employees and customers.

From both the mission and purpose of Patagonia, specific programs can spring, including its early refusal to carry steel pitons for hikers (which damage the environment) to its building of a supply chain for cotton products, to its embrace of sustainability and old clothes.

Differentiating between mission and purpose creates clarity in a corporate message for employees, shareholders, and the public.