Tesla honcho Elon Musk has taken to Twitter to express his misgivings with an AI-focused non-profit group’s wildly ambitious mission statement. In a 23 October tweet, Musk took aim at Way of the Future: a US religious think tank with heavy interests in the technology field, founded by former Google self-driving cars engineer, Anthony Levandowski.

In a blaze of publicity, Way of the Future proclaimed that its mission was: “To develop and promote the realisation of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and, through understanding and worship of the Godhead, contribute to the betterment of society.”

Which, in Musk’s view, indicated that the organisation ought to be on a “list of people who should absolutely not be allowed to develop digital superintelligence”.

Strong words indeed. However, despite his cutting response, Musk’s tweet demonstrates the power that a mission statement can have in signalling an organisation’s intentions to the rest of the world. After all, Way of the Future’s motto managed to seize the attention of a world-leading technologist and trigger an equally provocative reaction.

Similarly, a recent article on The Next Web explained how eco-friendly clothing brand Patagonia achieved significant sales figures in 2011 with an anti-consumerism ad campaign – the content of which captured the spirit of the firm’s mission statement: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

How can mission statements not only make commercial waves, but galvanise the efforts of leaders and staff to do what is best for their organisations?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “I don’t think there is anything more powerful than a mission statement that is: a) remembered by people who work in an organisation and those outside it, b) understood in terms of the message it’s trying to impart, and c) conveys something about the behaviours both of the people who believe in it, and those who devised it. If you can get that right, and you can align people behind that mission statement because it strikes a chord with them, then – as the Patagonia example indicates – commercial success is sure to follow.”

Cooper explains: “In his book Obliquity, economist John Kay argues that goals are often best achieved by approaching them indirectly. So if we consider that a key aim of organisations is to reward their shareholders, then the meaning encapsulated within a mission statement can play an indirect, yet pivotal, role. Kay points out that employees and communities alike benefit from firms with strong, ethical stances, but notes that those benefits will be transferred to shareholders – because they have invested in businesses that are eager to deliver on not just their short-term commitments, but their long-term visions.”

She adds: “This is also a cause celebre for management philosopher Charles Hampden-Turner. In his view, if you try to delight your customers – if you try to be fair and ethical with all of the people in your supply chain, and recognise that everybody has to gain – then you will reward your shareholders, because everybody is lined up and unified behind compelling ideas of fairness and honesty.”

For further thoughts on aligning values in your organisation, check out these learning resources from the Institute