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A North Star Approach to Leadership:  Vision and Mission

  • March 25, 2021
  • Written by Community Futures Meridian
Bill Stainton Bill Stainton

“2020 was designed by cats.” - Bill Stainton

Municipal leaders across Canada are facing unique challenges. Challenges that require a strong vision and innovative solutions. Sounds simple right? But both vision and innovation can be hard to come by and when you are caught up in the chaotic whirlwind of the municipal world. 

What can you do? Are you working towards the right goal? What’s the path to get there? How is there ever enough time to get everything done? Add the pressures of the pandemic and it is clear that there is potential for leaders to struggle.

Now more than ever communities need strong leaders and that’s why on March 17, Community Futures Meridian hosted a Leadership Master Class Series with the second presentation featuring Bill Stainton speaking on The North Star Approach to Leadership. The presentation, the second in a three-part series, was well attended with an audience of Council Members, Mayors, Reeves and County Officials across Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Provided below are the key lessons from Bill’s presentation.

 Leaders Need a North Star

 Bill talked about the importance that leaders have a ‘North Star’; using it as a metaphor for the need for vision and mission. He explained that traditionally the North Star is used for navigation not because it’s the brightest point in the sky but it’s a static reference to a known direction.

 “There are two key aspects of the North Star. One is that it’s visible. You need to be able to see it. Second, it’s worthless if you don’t look at it.”

 Similarly, having a strong vision and mission are the single point that everything else revolves around. 

 “A laser focus on your North Star is where everything changes.”

Leaders Have a Vision

The first step in finding your North Star is deciding upon your vision and mission, while understanding the role that each play in leading your organization. 

Vision is all about the future. It’s about answering the question of where do you want to be in the future from a high level perspective. It’s the WHY.  Whereas mission is all about the present. Mission is focused on the WHAT, and the HOW.

“Vision comes first. You need to understand where you want to go before you decide how you are going to get there. Otherwise, you are just throwing darts at a wall without a purpose. Vision drives mission.”

“The first step is to decide on the vision. But it’s not enough for leaders to have vision. You need to have your team share that vision.” 

He referenced the fact that most organizations have developed some version of a vision which is posted on the wall in the lunchroom. But often these posters are long-winded, difficult to read and understand and most importantly they are often hard to share and remember. 

“If your vision won’t fit on a bumper sticker it’s too long. Take for example the Beatles. Their vision was simple. They wanted to be ‘Bigger than Elvis.’”

Secondly, Bill talked about the need for your vision to seem like a ‘cool thing to do’. It needs to spark a positive emotional reaction and be inspirational. It needs to be something that the team can get behind. The example he referenced was President John F. Kennedy’s vision for Nasa: ‘To the Moon before the end of the decade.’

“This is a GREAT vision. It says from X to Y by when. And it’s cool; it’s inspirational.”

Leaders Build Shared Vision

Once you have a vision you need to ensure that it’s shared with the team.

“85% of your people have no idea what it is that you’re trying to accomplish. As leaders we tend to think sending an email is communicating the vision. That’s a fallacy because it turns out the vision needs to be communicated continually. You need to keep reinforcing the vision.”

It’s almost impossible to over communicate your vision. It needs to be consciously kept front and center. Make it as visible as much as you can. 

“Vision and mission only work if you get buy in from the team. But nobody likes being ‘sold to’. We instinctively resist.”

He advised that instead of trying to ‘sell’ the vision it was better to focus on giving ownership of the vision to the team. A shared ownership can be developed through asking questions and really listening.

“When it’s ours, it’s an opportunity”

Leaders Prioritize

With the whirlwind of activities and responsibilities how much time are you spending leading?   Are you setting time to lead?   How are you moving the needle on your vision the Vision? How do we get anything done if we aren’t focused? These are some of the major questions Bill proposed to the group. He used the analogy of a whirlwind to describe the typical chaotic situations that we all face.

“We stop being leaders when we are defeated by the whirlwind.”

The key to defeating the whirlwind is prioritization and short-term goal setting.

“Leadership is all about from X to Y by when. A year is too big. We need to break our annual plans into quarterly plans and start thinking in terms of 90 days.”

One of the tools Bill advocated suggest was the use of the Eisenhower Matrix; a tool which can be used to categorize tasks based on urgency and importance.

“Delay or delete any task that’s unimportant and not urgent. Focus first on the things that are important and urgent. Delegate the tasks that are urgent but don’t need to be done by you. And finally, SCHEDULE time for the tasks that important but not urgent. “

According to Bill vision and mission live in the important but not urgent category.

“If it’s not on a calendar it’s never going to happen. You need to schedule time for the important work of setting vision and mission.”

Leaders are Focused

Bill advocated for the need for leaders to be focused on completing actions that will have the most impact on moving their organization towards their vision. 

“What is your one thing that you can do to move your vision forward?”

He referenced a book The One Thing (https://www.the1thing.com/)  by Gary Keller. The book advocates for choosing one action that can often be done every day to move the bar forward. Using the example of his speaking services he talked about how every day he commits to doing five outreaches to potential clients for speaking engagements. 

“The One Thing is a leading measure. It needs to be an action item. It needs to be measurable with a simple yes/no. And it has to have a time component. For example, comedian Jerry Seinfeld writes jokes every day. The key is not to break the chain. If you do this the whirlwind takes care of itself. Your actions become a habit.”

Leaders Innovate

“Things have changed. When things change, we need to do things differently.

We’ve had to be innovative, and everyone has it in them.”

Bill talked about the fact that it’s not enough to just say ‘You need to innovate, or you need to think outside the box.’ People need to have a process for innovation.

“We are all innovative, but innovation is not about ‘lightning bolt’ epiphanies.

Innovation is all about connecting dots. It’s about seeing relationships others don’t see; it’s almost never about creating something out of thin air.”

Instead of trying to come up with one ‘big idea’, focus on collecting ideas and inspiration from as many sources as possible, Bill suggested that collecting a large diverse set of ideas is what creates new innovation.

“We never know which idea is going to be the breakthrough idea. Being creative is all about connecting things that do not necessarily belong together. 

Leaders Ask Questions

“The difference between innovators and others is that when they hit a ‘brick wall’ innovators ask questions.”

According to Bill, better questions equal more creativity. The goal is to keep asking how things can be better?

“Innovation isn’t necessarily about inventing the new iPhone. Little innovations count just as much as big innovations.”

Whenever you are facing any challenge a good solution is to ask what Bill calls: ’Treasure Map Questions’. Who else has solved a similar problem? What did they do to solve it? How can I apply their solution to my situation? How is ‘this’ like ‘that’?

He asked the Municipal Leaders to not just think about calling their neighboring communities but instead focus on how other industry leaders or others around the world are approaching their problem solving. The key is to look in unique and different places for innovation and ideas.

“If you start asking questions, you’ll start to become an innovation machine. All of a sudden you’ll find yourself coming up with creative ideas.”


Communities around the World are facing enormous challenges. We can face these challenges through developing a strong vision and mission; sharing ownership of the vision with our teams; prioritizing our time to ensure we can focus on the bigger picture; lean towards action; and finally ensure we are asking questions to help us come up with new and innovative solutions. 

“Leaders face unique challenges. It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind and lose track of your ‘North Star’. If you get stuck remember the North Star is always there. You’ll find it at the intersection of vision, mission and innovation. That’s your North Star.”

Sage advice from Bill Stainton. 

 We’d like to thank our partners including SEDA and fellow Community Futures offices:    CF Sagehill,  CF Ventures,  CF Newsask, CF Lakeland. 

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