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Articulating Direction


As Yogi Berra artfully observed, “If you don't know where you're going you might not get there.”

Establishing the direction of your organization - and then communicating direction to stakeholders - is a fundamental leadership responsibility.

Indeed, direction is the first of five core leadership priorities - direction, performance, innovation, structure, and culture - that are critical to the success of any endeavor. Direction is the priority on which all the others are dependent.
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When leaders articulate direction effectively, they unleash the talent inherent in their endeavor. Direction consists of three vital elements: meaning, which fosters motivation; integrity, which fosters confidence, and a game-plan which fosters aligned action. Think of these elements by three corresponding questions….why, what, and how.

Meaning...our Purpose
Why do we exist?

Why is indeed the first question to ask. Simon Sinek, in one of the all-time most watched TED talks on leadership, notes that most companies describe what they do, and many go on to describe how they do it. But companies that are exceptional, that change the world - think Apple or Disney - lead with answering the question why?

It’s too easy to say a business exists to make money, a shoe store is here to sell shoes, or an architectural firm’s purpose is to design structures. Exceptional organizations go deeper, tapping into a richer purpose. In the 1950s, Disney studios realized they were not just a moviemaking company but an entertainment company - and made history with the launch of Disneyland.

Small business owners and nonprofit executives, take note - this applies to you as much as it does to big corporations. When I became the chief executive of a small family service agency, the mission was stated conventionally - “we provide counseling to people who can’t afford it.” Reframing our mission as an expression of why we exist - “to restore, support, and promote family well-being” - started us on a path leading to 3x growth and integrating additional services we previously would not have considered, such as financial counseling, employee assistance, and visitation management.

Whether called purpose, mission, vision, noble cause - each provides a different nuance of an organization’s core reason for being - what is important is that leaders have a message that is consistent, authentic, and congruent with what an organization actually does. Meaning motivates.

Integrity...our Principles
What is important to us?

What drives us? What do we pay attention to? What keeps us in line? The answers to these questions, whether or not expressed formally, comprise the values or principles of an organization.

Values and principles contribute to direction because they speak to what we care about. We give the things we care about our time and attention. If we are doing what we care about, the work becomes motivating and meaningful.

Values and principles also serve to establish boundaries of behavior, and guide decision making about how you will achieve the organization’s goals. It builds confidence. If you value top performance you make sacrifices to win; if you value your people you make sacrifices for their well-being; if you value being a good corporate citizen, you make sacrifices to engage your company in the larger community.

Game-plan...our Strategy
How do we get to where we want to be?

In a Dilbert cartoon, Dilbert asks the pointy-haired boss to tell him the company strategy. “No I don't want you to lose hope,” says the boss. Indeed for too many endeavors strategy is woefully inadequate - it’s nonexistent, it's a vague statement like “we want to be the market leader,” or it’s only a checklist of things to do in the next two years.

Strategy is about the ‘game plan’ for winning, about how the organization will make choices among options moving forward to achieve success in a distinctive way. If purpose shines light on what final outcomes are meaningful, and principles embody what is important along the way, strategy helps people focus on actions that will keep the organization moving forward.

It is certainly possible to be successful without having a formal statement or document that articulates purpose, principles, and strategy. Having them written, however, is a step toward clarity that can greatly enhance a leader’s influence. But be warned - simply having written statements alone doesn’t do much. Their value derives from their use in ongoing, explicit, and interactive communication about the direction of the endeavor. (A strategy map is a brilliant tool for this purpose.) Savvy leaders continuously engage their people in all three elements of direction - purpose, principles, and strategy - through both formal and informal means.

Leadership Idea Leaders foster motivation, confidence, and effective action by clearly articulating direction: i.e., purpose, principles, and strategy.

by Tom Stevens (c)2007, 2010, 2013
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

This article may be freely reprinted in your company, association, or commercial publication (or website) under the following terms: that the author attribution, copyright notice, contact information, and this reprint notice be included; and that you inform us that you are using the article (samples appreciated).

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Strategy Maps are an incredible leadership tool for articulating direction
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