Purpose Shared: Peter Block on Re-envisioning Vision and Ownership

Photo Credit: Craig Neal

Photo Credit: Craig Neal

"A vision created for others to live out is patriarchy in action. There is no ownership in endorsement or enrollment, a fancy term for selling the vision."

We are thrilled to offer a recent essay by friend Peter Block. We deeply admire his thought leadership.


In implementing stewardship principles many well-meaning people in power make the false connection that if we want consistency and control in the quality of product or service we deliver to customers, we must have consistency and control in the way we govern the people creating the product or service. The business process and the human process are both important, but they operate on different principles. Forgetting this results in cosmetic change.

We need to understand that the methods of change we choose can undermine our intentions unless they produce a redistribution of power, purpose, and privilege.  

A clear example of how popular strategies of improvement can reinforce patriarchy and feed rather than confront our belief in consistency and control is the organizational visioning process. We have bought the notion that vision must come from the top.

Since the mid-1980s, every top management team has created its vision statement and worked hard on communicating it. What this means in practical terms is that a consultant or staff person has spent a lot of time interviewing executives and writing vision paragraphs. A half- or full-day retreat is then convened so the top group can wordsmith the statement and plan for its distribution.

The intent is sincere and the content is always appealing. Each management team affirms its uniqueness by declaring that it

  • is committed to being world class,
  • will be number one in its markets,
  • believes in its people,
  • stands firm for quality,
  • cares for customers,
  • is committed to the environment,
  • supports teams, and
  • is going to make a lot of money for shareholders
  • (or will be fiscally responsible to its stakeholders).

Sincere intentions. An appealing statement. What’s the problem?

First, it is boring, but put that aside. The significant problem is twofold: ownership and implementation. Ownership resides with those who craft and create a vision, and with them alone. A statement created for a team to endorse is not owned by the team. An even more fundamental defect is that, in most cases, the vision statement is created for the rest of the organization to live out.

Notice that the vision here is used to define a culture or a set of values to be lived. This is different from top management’s rightful task to define business mission and set business goals. A vision created for others to live out is patriarchy in action. There is no ownership in endorsement or enrollment, a fancy term for selling the vision.

The belief that crafting the vision is primarily a leadership-at-the-top function defeats, right at the beginning, the intent of driving ownership and responsibility toward those close to the work and the customer. Creating vision is in fact an ownership function, and if we want ownership widely dispersed, then each person needs to struggle with articulating their own, personal vision for their function or unit.

Ownership comes from an investment, and the investment required from each of us is to define purpose for ourselves. Each of us defining vision for our area of responsibility is how partnership is created. The desire for vision from the top is a subtle way of disclaiming ownership and responsibility. If this were our own business, it is unlikely that we would allow someone else to define values for us.

Adapted from Stewardship: Choosing Service over Self-Interest, 2d ed. (San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler, 2013). In the last 25 years, Peter Block’s Designed Learning has trained over 1,000,000 staff professionals worldwide using his highly successful Flawless Consulting™ workshops.

Resources: Designed Learning, Abundant Community