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Have you ever tried to tell a punchline without telling the joke? The results are rarely what the aspiring comic expects. The same thing happens with people and organizations who attempt to take action, implement tactics, live life without a mission. When nobody gets it, the question becomes not “what is the joke?” but “who is the joke?”

From joking to winning

In his book Winning, Jack Welch (2005) emphasizes the importance of a mission to winning in business. However, many companies do not know what a mission is, let alone know how to develop a mission. Lacking clear purpose and direction, these organizations do not reach their potential, or worse, they flounder and fail.

Welch’s first step toward winning in business is to establish a mission and values that influence mission-attainment behaviors. Creating the mission and values of an organization are core functions of executive leadership but should not be developed in isolation. The mission provides people with a “clear sense of the direction… and the inspiration to feel they are part of something big” (p. 15). Similarly, Jim Collins (2004) said two fundamental leadership roles are to

  1. catalyze a clear and shared vision and
  2. secure a commitment to pursue that vision.

Leaders who isolate themselves and dictate tend to have difficulty fostering commitment, influencing behaviors, and driving the continuous change necessary to win in turbulent competitive environments.

Consequences of tactics without purpose

When I worked as a marketing manager for a global manufacturer, our leaders tended to manage by knee-jerk, constantly reacting without purpose or direction. A tactically focused organization, the CEO would proudly declare things like

  • “We’re all so busy” without ever getting anything done.
  • “We’re putting out fires” caused by a failure to plan.
  • “We’re reorganizing for a brighter future,” as they rearranged the deck chairs on a ship that tumbled more deeply into an accelerating whirlpool with every reactive, episodic change event.

The culture tended to degenerate into factions with different agendas, fighting turf wars using petty politics and destructive infighting in a caustic environment. Individuals tended to get in their own boats and paddle the best they could or find a place to hide so they could do the minimum amount necessary to avoid getting in trouble while preparing their resumes for a job search.

Fortunately, the CEO read Beyond Entrepreneurship by Jim Collins (1995) and became an overnight convert to strategic management. This allowed me to participate in one of my first significant change management projects to transform a failing, tactically focused manufacturing company into a winning, purpose-driven global marketing organization. This was happening around the same as the GE transformation that Jack Welch wrote about in Winning (2005) and was even influenced by some of the GE tools and techniques from journal articles.

Takeaways from applying a winning mission

Key lessons I learned about the role of a mission to transform an organization that I see in Jack Welch’s (2005) writings today include:

  • Have purpose. Define a mission that clearly states how you intend to win and provides a sense of direction and inspiration that motivates, even inspires, mission-attainment behaviors.
  • Take responsibility. For the leader, take responsibility for defining the mission and values, but do not do so in isolation. Engaging others by candidly communicating the problem and working with them to develop a solution is essential for building a coalition of change agents who can help influence transformation organically throughout the organization. Contrarily, attempting to develop a solution in isolation and forcing top-down implementation can doom a change process to failure (Kotter, 1990).
  • Be the change. For the employee, recognize when change is imminent and necessary and pursue opportunities to join the change coalition. Becoming a mission-driven organization includes implementing processes that “reward the people who exhibit [organizational values] and punish those who don’t” (Welch, 2005, p. 20); so, make the conscious decision to contribute or prepare for exit.
  • Align. Once you've established the mission, constantly “harp” on it (Welch, 2005, p. 16). Align strategy, goals, tactics, and controls with the mission. Link the decisions and initiatives to the mission.
  • Adapt. Continuously assess the mission and values for improvement. The context is dynamic. Carving a mission in granite and remaining static in a dynamic environment can escalate commitment to failed courses of action that diminish success (Brockner, 1992). Jack Welch (2005) says that creating the mission and associated values should be an “iterative” process, meaning that it should be “poked and probed by people all over the organization, over and over again” (pp. 18-19).

The mission-driven organization

In short, the mission provides the purpose, direction, and motivation for guiding mission-driven behavior in leaders and followers. The mission helps answer the existential questions of why we exist, whom we exist for, what we believe, how we see the world and our place in it, and how we act. Without a mission's direction and purpose, we risk becoming reactive agents in a turbulent environment with limited capacity to adjust, adapt, progress, thrive, and succeed. A lack of mission makes us victims of circumstance, always implementing tactics in reaction to what is happening. As useful as a punchline without a joke.


Brockner, J. (1992). The escalation of commitment to a failing course of action: Toward theoretical progress. The Academic of Management Review, 17(1), 29, 23 pages.

Collins, J., & Lazier, W. C. (1995). Beyond entrepreneurship: Turning your business into an enduring great company. Paramus, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Collins, J., & Porras, J. I. (2004). Built to last (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Harper Business.

Kotter, J. P. (1990). A force for change: How leadership differs from management. New York, NY: Free Press.

Welch, J. (2005). Winning. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.


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