At a leadership conference years ago, I shared the stage with the CEO of a top-performing company known for its powerful combination of management discipline and people-focused leadership culture. He illustrated the defining role of vision, values, and purpose with a great personal example. He told us he called a friend and got this message; “Hi. Sorry I missed your call. This is not an answering machine; it’s a questioning machine. There are two important questions in life; Who are you? and What do you want? Please leave your answer at the tone.”

Talk of answering machines shows this example is a “few” years old! But those existential questions are timeless. Going way…back to my days co-founding the Achieve Group, we’ve used three key questions that have stood the test of time:

  • Where are we going (our picture of our preferred future or outcome)?
  • What do we believe in (our guiding values or principles)?
  • Why do we exist (our reason for being, mission, or purpose)?

These aren’t in any order. You can start and finish anywhere. Like a triple yin yang symbol, they blend and blur into each other. We’ve put them at the center of two core personal, team, and leadership effectiveness models anchoring many of my books and our development programs and services.

We call these three questions, Focus and Context. This is at the very core of our organizations and our lives. Focus and Context provide the ultimate focal point and meaning for us. What are our core values and beliefs? Where are you trying to go? What does success look like? What kind of team or organization are we trying to build? What kind of person are we becoming? How does our work align with our life’s mission or purpose?

The three Focus and Context questions are the counterbalance to Strategy and Direction at the heart of our culture development pathways model. They define the heart, soul, and spirit of our teams and organizations. This is the heart that drives the head of rational systems and processes to direct the hands of technology. These three questions are also the core of our “leadership wheel,” framing the timeless leadership principles we use for books and workshops on leading self and others.

Less effective managers often “do leadership” as if it were just another set of tools to be deployed (“I’ve done my vision thing”). But a team or organization’s Focus and Context aren’t techniques, statements, or approaches. They’re deeper than that. Focus and Context are about feelings, causes, and convictions. They go to the very DNA of our being. You can’t be dispassionate about passionate issues. Otherwise, while you do your “leadership thing,” people on your team and in your organization will do their “commitment thing.” So, nothing is energized.

I’ve been involved in too many “vernacular engineering” debates as management teams discuss whether the statement they’ve been crafting is a vision, mission, values, goals, and the like. Often these philosophical labeling debates are like trying to pick the fly specks out of the pepper. Unless you’re a lexicographer and your company is in the dictionary business, don’t worry about the precise definition of a vision, mission, values, or whatever you may be calling the words you’re using to define who you are and where you’re trying to go.

What matters is that you and your team have discussed, debated, and decided on the answers to these three questions. They are existential questions. They’re fundamental to leading yourself and others. This is the core of effective leadership. If you’re attempting to improve your team or organization culture, your answers to these basic questions are the first step toward your desired culture.

These questions are at the center of our lives. They are central to our choices, authenticity, passion and commitment, spirit and meaning, growth and development, and ability to energize and mobilize others.

In The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff writes:

How can you get very far,

If you don’t know Who You Are?

How can you do what you ought,

If you don’t know What You’ve Got?

And if you don’t know Which to Do

Of all the things in front of you,

Then what you’ll have when you are through

Is just a mess without a clue

All the best can come true

If you know What and Which and Who.