Defining your “Big Why”: Creating a Mission Statement that Expresses Your Core Values

by Katharine Stewart

Hello again, and welcome back. In this post within the Your Leadership Journey series, we’re going to think about Step Three in the process of building confidence in your leadership identity. Wait – Step Three? If you are wondering where the first two steps are, you’ve missed a post. Go back and read “You are More Qualified than You Think” to find them. As a quick re-cap, Step One is making a list of your past leadership actions. Step Two is about surveying your current surroundings and making a list of leadership opportunities. And then connecting your past actions with those current opportunities. This post is going to dig deeper by understanding why you want to be involved in making the changes you identified in Step Two.

In my experience, a sizable majority of folks in higher education are taking on formal or informal leadership roles because they are driven by a desire to make something good happen for some group of people within or outside the university. They want to help students or faculty, or staff succeed. They want to advance scholarship or practice within their discipline. They want to do something innovative that will make life or work easier for their colleagues or their community partners. In short, they have a sense of purpose. From the very start of my career I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by people who had a clear purpose. And the people I mentor and coach today are, to a person, filled with awe-inspiring motivations. But sometimes when I ask them, “Why do you do what you do?” or “What motivates you to want to change these things around you?,” they struggle to express what’s inside them.

This post, therefore, is about helping you express your purpose. I believe that being able to express your purpose clearly is a crucial part of your leadership journey. Some people call this the “Big Why,” and I think that’s perfect. The “Big Why” is your personal mission statement. It’s the thing that drives you. It explains, in no more than a sentence or two, the impact you want to have in your world, and maybe a little bit about how you hope to do that. I’ll share my mission statement as an example: I help faculty and academic leaders create successful and joyful careers, and I help universities find and support great leaders. Of course, this doesn’t explain all the reasons why I want to do this work. And even though the mission seems big, I’m living that mission most days in fairly small or mundane ways – revising a policy that isn’t working well for the campus, helping a department chair address a personnel issue, working with the colleagues in my office to think about our programs. But the mission statement, my “Big Why,” helps me focus. It helps me choose from among the thousand things that I could be doing in any semester. And it helps me reorient myself when I feel like I’ve gotten off track.

Creating your mission statement takes time. You may go through several drafts before you get to a mission statement that feels like it captures enough of your “Big Why” to really resonate. But I firmly believe that taking the time to craft a mission statement for yourself is worth the effort. You can get started by going back to your homework from the previous blog post. In that homework assignment, I asked you to list the leadership opportunities that you see around you, and to “connect the dots” between those opportunities and your past leadership actions. I’d like you to go back to that exercise. Re-read the leadership opportunities you listed. Just keep reviewing them, over and over, and think to yourself, “Why do these things matter to me? What do I believe is possible here?” Keep asking yourself this, and really listen to what comes up in your mind. Say these things out loud to yourself. Listen for the things that you say with more passion, more energy. When I am working with mentees or clients, I can usually identify the moment when they hit their “Big Why,” because their voices become emphatic and their eyes light up with intensity. Listen to yourself and start writing down the things that feel most true to you as your purpose, the deeper reason those leadership opportunities were the ones you decided to write down.

Your homework assignment this time is to come up with a draft of your mission statement, your “Big Why,” using these notes you are making now. Give it a try. Resist the impulse to critique your mission statement by saying it’s too ambitious or too lofty for you to achieve. None of us achieves our mission alone; that’s not the point of writing one. The point is to express the thing that drives you to work with others for change. It’s both as simple and as challenging as that. This is the toughest homework so far, but I promise: there are no wrong answers. There’s just what’s inside you, lighting your way. Give that purpose a form by writing it down, and I’ll see you in our next post, where we’ll start applying what we’ve done in these first three posts to your search for a leadership role.

Dr. Sandra Miles
Head of Practice, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Sandra joined Academic Impressions in 2022 having served as a leader and administrator in higher education for two decades. She has served as a subject-matter expert for Academic Impressions, facilitating trainings and workshops in higher-ed. Her passion is making DEI concepts resonate for individuals from all walks of life.