Values, vision and mission: The three pillars for leadership success

By Kelly Shih | November 6, 2018

Notes from the Excellence in Government Fellows program October kickoff session

Say the name Captain John Smith and most people will likely think of one of two things: that he helped found Jamestown—the first permanent, English settlement in the Americas—or that he was the fictionalized leading man in “Pocahontas,” the classic Disney movie. But if you ask any of the Excellence in Government Fellows program participants about Smith, their understanding of this 16th-century figure now also encompasses his the three pillars of his leadership style. In mid-October, this year’s fellows learned a nuanced story about the advantages and dangers of his particular approach.

More than 200 fellows traveled to Jamestown, Virginia, for the kickoff session of EIG, the Partnership’s leadership development program for senior-level federal managers. Each year, the Partnership begins the 10-month program with a session called “Vision, Values and Mission,” the three pillars for leadership success.

On the first day of the Jamestown visit, instructors shared lessons on the fundamentals of leadership and how to use them to tackle challenges fellows face at their agencies.

It’s also where they learned about John Smith’s leadership.

Going back in time to learn leadership lessons for today

On a sunny fall day, the fellows gather below an imposing bronze statue of Smith that stands within the outlines of the original James Fort. They listen to a historian explain how Jamestown’s legacy as our country’s birthplace arose from Smith’s ability to lead the colony through starvation and constant attacks.

“Did he have a mission?” Jared Peatman, the Partnership’s go-to leadership historian, asks the fellows. Yes, the fellows agree: survival.

Clearly, his leadership style got results in difficult times. But Smith struggled to lead when the colony became more stable, Peatman says.

“Values?” Peatman asks. The fellows say not everyone in the colony agreed with Smith’s values. His principle of hard work often morphed into brutality. One of his favorite refrains was, “He that will not work, shall not eat.”

“A vision?” Peatman asks. The fellows are uncertain. If Smith had a concept for the colony’s future, he certainly failed to get others to buy into it. Those who begrudgingly accepted his rule during times of crisis tried multiple times to execute him. And they sent him packing back to England as soon as they could.

The three leadership pillars today

Though Smith and these current-day public servants are leading in different times, the lightbulbs turn on as the fellows see parallels to their daily work.

Some mention their works teams that are always in reaction mode without a clear, driving vision.

Others see positive values such as accountability taken too far. They say it creates overly cautious cultures that stifle innovation.

A few reflect on leaders they’ve known who excelled at achieving a short-term mission but alienated everyone along the way.

After the fellows left Jamestown and returned to work, this history lesson helped the them see how values, vision and mission, the three pillars of leadership success—no matter what century it is. 


Kelly Shih