FAQ: What is the difference between Purpose and Mission?

by Nikos Mourkogiannis

May 08, 2020

Mission comes from the Latin verb “mittere” which means “send”. It was first employed by Jesuit missionaries who sent members of their order overseas to establish schools and churches. Foreign travel is still associated with the word; when diplomats, humanitarian workers or soldiers for that matter are sent abroad, we often refer to those trips as missions. To send is intrinsically associated with the concept of time and the ability to pronounce success on the completion of the mission.

Mission refers to a Campaign; Purpose is for the long-term.

To give two examples from politics: George W. Bush was right to pronounce “mission accomplished” after the second Iraq war. Baghdad had been captured and the mission of every traditional military campaign is to capture the capital of the enemy. The problem, of course, was that he was not right about the Purpose of the mission, as a matter of fact it had no Purpose at all. Similarly, on January 30, Boris Johnson will be justified to pronounce Brexit done. Brexit will be written in the Law of the Land. The mission of a long Campaign will be reached. However, this will not automatically answer what is the Purpose of the UK.

Several business leaders also lower the bar by advancing corporate missions instead of addressing fundamentals. Mission statements focus on primary customers, products and services and geographical locations in which a company operates. They may address how a company shall operate, but not for how long and, more importantly, why it is in business in the first place.

Sure enough, some mission statements are given an ambitious twist (with references to, say, “excellence”) in an effort to make them appear aspirational and, therefore, permanent. Strictly speaking, this is a misnomer, because any decision on operational issues can commit a company to a Campaign but not for ever; especially these days.

Worse, more often than not, Mission Statements breed cynicism, with corporate mission seen as just another management tool, a way of just getting from here to there.

P.S. More on mission statements on page 53 of my book, “PURPOSE: The Starting Point of Great Companies”.
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