The first task of leadership is setting direction.

It’s also the most confusing, largely because, if you peruse the available leadership and management literature and leaven your findings with the maunderings of management consultants, you’ll find at least six different categories of direction-setting planning to choose from: (1) Vision, (2) strategy, (3) strategic planning, (4) mission, (5) values, and (6) key messages.

There are probably more, but let’s stick with these so we don’t overwhelm the already overburdened.

Vision is an explanation, in primary colors, of how a leader would like tomorrow to be different from yesterday. Vision can be about the leader’s organization, its work products, or a constituency’s perceptions.

Vision is at risk of being the most self-important of the directions. If that point isn’t clear, imagine you hear someone in a leadership role say, “My vision for our products is …”

“My” vision? “MY” vision? Vision had better be the result of multiple conversations within the leadership team at least, and even better if it’s the result of a wide variety of conversations, so that “Our” vision is a meaningful designation.

Strategy is a succinct explanation of what an organization plans to win on (if it’s for an entire company). For IT and other segments of an organization, it’s the centerpiece of the value it’s going to create. So, a company’s strategy might be to win on price. IT’s strategy might be to enable and support opportunities for operational efficiencies throughout the enterprise.

Strategic planning might apply to the vision, or to strategy. Either way the strategic plan lists the steps an organization will take to make the vision, strategy, or both real.

Mission explains why an organization exists. Also known as a charter, it’s a prosaic understanding of the reasons the organization’s leaders have decided to add this box to the organizational chart.

“Mission” is often confused with mission statements. It’s an easy conflation to make. Just think of it this way: Everyone in or near an organization needs to understand its mission – what it’s supposed to do and deliver. “Mission statements,” in contrast, rarely have any actual meaning and may be safely ignored by everyone involved.

Values (and their associated “values statement”) are a safe alternative to leaders having the courage to create and lead a business that exhibits behavior we would consider moral were an individual human being to exhibit it.

Somewhere and sometime in my untraceable past I suggested that “It isn’t ethics unless it hurts,” the point being that if a decision does no harm and doesn’t hurt then it’s nothing more than “moral luck.”

Also in my distant past was the admirable “gray zone” training I participated in during my tenure at Perot Systems. Its purpose: to help its employees recognize that ethical decision-making isn’t just hard the way digging a ditch is hard. It’s also hard the way differential calculus is hard. Which is to say, there’s little point in admonishing employees to “do the right thing” because often, figuring out the right choice is complicated and ambiguous.

Values, that is, have the same relationship to values statements that missions have to mission statements.

Key messages are a tool leaders use to communicate. Out of everything the leader might want their audience to understand about the direction they’ve decided on, their key messages about that direction are seven or so simple declarative or imperative sentences that summarize it. So key messages aren’t directions leaders set. They’re a vital means by which leaders set whatever the direction is they need to set.

Bob’s last word: Setting a well-chosen direction is satisfying. It’s important, and, done well, is a key ingredient in an organization’s success.

But when setting direction, effective leaders don’t lose sight of the Edison Ratio, Thomas Edison’s observation that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.

Which means that when an organization’s leaders choose its direction they’ve expended a whopping one percent of the total effort needed for success to happen.

Bob’s sales pitch: As I wind down Keep the Joint Running, I’d like to make sure I cover topics of interest. That is, topics of interest to KJR’s subscribers, not just of interest to me.

So please let me know of any topics that fit these three criteria: (1) their appeal shouldn’t be too narrow; (2) I should know enough about them to have formed an opinion worth paying attention to; and (3) I haven’t already beat them to death in previous posts.

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This week in’s CIO Survival Guide:6 ways CIOs sabotage their IT consultant’s success.” The point? It’s up to IT’s leaders to make it possible for the consultants they engage to succeed. If they weren’t serious about the project, why did they sign the contract?