Does Your Team Know Its Mission?


General George Patton demanded that his soldiers know their mission and be able to state it succinctly. "What is your mission?" he would ask.

To Patton, "the definition of mission was the most important piece of information a soldier carried into combat."[1] Great teams, like great soldiers, operate with clarity of mission. In this post I define mission and consider some mission-critical elements every team must address.

Group Or High Performing Team?

There is a big difference between a group of people who have been assembled to accomplish a task and a high performing team. High performing teams share at least four characteristics:

  1. A high performing team is a real team.Click here to read.
  2. A high performing team knows its mission.
  3. A high performing team has a useful structure.
  4. A high performing team has a strong leader.

For the next few moments, let's consider the importance of the team's mission.

A High Performing Team Knows Its Mission

The mission is the team's task. It is the reason the team exists. When clearly defined, it gives the team the direction it needs. The mission is the finish line toward which the team rows, the specific mountain that the team is going to climb, the problem that they are responsible to solve.

When a leader helps her team to define what the team does, that statement of mission also provides compelling direction for where the team needs to go. Patrick Lencioni notes that the mission "lies at the opposite end of the idealism scale from why an organization exists and is nothing more than a description of what an organization actually does."[2] Applying that idea to your work team means that your mission statement should be brief, clear, and simple enough to print on the front of a T-shirt.

It is easy for teams to assume that "everyone knows what we do," and only later discover that their perceptions are ten degrees apart. Even a minor lack of alignment will slow down the team and reduce its effectiveness. If you have not clearly defined your mission, take the time to write it out in 25 words or less. Lencioni suggests:

No flowery adjectives or adverbs here. Nothing ethereal or abstract. Just an unsexy, one-sentence definition--something your grandmother can understand (no offense to grandmas).[3]

If you want to check mission clarity, take time to write down your team mission.

Our mission: We exist to __________________________________________________


Having written it down yourself, now ask your team to write down the mission. Are you and your team aligned in your understanding of the team's task? If not, hammer out the mission statement until you are. The importance of mission cannot be overstated. The mission of Jesus was so central that all four gospel writers record it. Acts picks up where the gospels leave off. Jesus restates his mission in the first chapter. The next twenty-seven chapters are the working out of his mission.

Pat MacMillan has said,"The most critical component in building a high performance team is a clear, common, compelling task."[4]What is your mission?

5 Benefits To Knowing Your Mission

A clear mission accomplishes many things:

  1. A clear mission tells us why we exist. It provides the purpose behind our work.
  2. A clear mission provides direction. It gives the team the finish line toward which it is driving.
  3. A clear mission provides guardrails. It clarifies what the team does and does not do.
  4. A clear mission helps the team stay aligned. It acts as the team GPS, keeping the team on the same path.
  5. A clear mission energizes.[5] It inspires team members to get out of bed and "get after it" day in and day out.

In Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul, CEO Howard Schultz notes the significance of mission, alignment, and energy:

Perhaps more than any other company, we had for years used our mission as a touchstone to make sure the guiding principles of how we run our business are intact and as a measuring stick for whether or not the company is aligned with its founding purpose, which at the highest level is to inspire and nurture the human spirit.[6]

Your entire organization benefits when your team clearly knows its mission.

Do the hard work to make it clear.

Team Mission And Authority

Richard Hackman, author of Leading Teams, raises a significant issue about teams and direction. Yes, a compelling direction focuses and energizes a team, but who is responsible for setting the direction? Hackman writes:

Effective team self-management is impossible unless someone in authority sets the direction for the team's some pointthose who have the legitimate authority for the enterprise must step up to their responsibility and clearly designate the mountain to be climbed. Who properly sets direction for a team varies from situation to situation. Sometimes it is the team leader . . . . Other times it is someone outside the team, as when a manager appoints a committee to review an organization issues and make a recommendation for action.[7]
Once direction has been set, leaders must determine whether direction should be primarily about the ultimate purpose (the ends) or should it also specify the means?[8] Hackman, a professor at Harvard, has developed the followng grid to help leaders understand the trade-offs between ends and means.[9]
Hackman Model
Hackman Model

Ends but Not Means

Team members collaborate to devise and execute a plan of action. This is the approach of empowerment. It is a statement of the team's strength and abilities and of the leader's sense of security. At the same time, for a leader to specify ends but not means is actually more challenging than assembling a team, defining their purpose and walking away, leaving the team to itself.

Both Ends and Means

To specify both ends and means is to serve as the symphony conductor whose members take all their cues from him or a coach who must call every play from the sidelines because he doesn't trust the quarterback's decision-making ability. This approach may quell the leader's anxiety for how the work is done, but it wastes the expertise and wisdom of the team.

Neither Ends nor Means

This approach is potential disaster for the organization. "Failure to establish a compelling direction runs two significant risks: that team members will pursue whatever purpose they personally prefer, but without any common focus; or that they gradually will fade into the woodwork" and become irrelevant.[10]

Means but Not Ends

Hackman identifies the lower left portion of the quadrant as "unquestionably the worst of the four." Team members lose enthusiasm and their efforts atrophy.

Take a few moments to assess your leadership and your team. Is there a need to adjust the direction as it relates to ends and means?

About Your Team's Mission

Team mission is critical. Despite the need for the mission to be so simple as to place on the front of a T-shirt, determining that mission and setting the direction is not simplistic. But great leaders do the hard work to get their team on mission. 


[1] Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 2003. Page 199.

[2] Patrick Lencioni, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 2012. Page 105.

[3] Lencioni, The Advantage. Page 105.

[4] Pat MacMillan, The Performance Factor. Page 59.

[5] Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting The Stage For Great Performances. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing. 2002. Page 63.

[6] Howard Schultz, Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul. New York: Rodale. Page 111.

[7] Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting The Stage For Great Performances. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing. 2002. Page 62.

[8] Richard Hackman, Leading Teams: Setting The Stage For Great Performances. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing. 2002. Page 73.

[9] I am sharing thoughts here from Hackman, pages 73-83.

[10] Hackman, Leading Teams. Page 80.