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Leadership, Resources
I like to challenge myself.

Setting goals that won’t be easily achieved and pursuing them motivates me and I am energized by new objectives. I do a pretty good job of accomplishing some of them too.

The challenge is when I realize that the goal is out of reach.

Last weekend some friends of mine hosted a trail running race around my favourite local lake. Each lap is a little over 5km and they offered 1 lap, 2 lap, 5 lap, and even a 10 lap race. Back in the summer I decided to commit to the 5 lap (25+ km) event. I knew that it was beyond my fitness level at that time and would be difficult to train enough to be ready. It felt good to set the bar high.

Unfortunately it was too high. I admitted to myself in early September that there was no way I would be prepared to run well for that distance; finishing was unlikely and having fun highly improbable.

It was tough to have to contact them and request a change to the 10+km distance, and to have to tell some people who knew I was targeting the longer event. Swallowing my pride, even when it was clearly the right choice, doesn’t come easily.

I’ve just started reading Jon Acuff’s latest book, Finish. In it he talks about research showing that the real reasons many people fail to complete their goals is an inability to adapt to less than perfect performance or to scale back when it becomes apparent that the objective is out of reach. It’s really good stuff and he offers very practical advice to help us experience greater success by being more realistic.

I can think of dozens of leaders who could join me in recognizing ourselves in this tendency to be overly ambitious when goal setting and not manage the process effectively when we see we’ve bitten off more than we can chew. This book can help us.

Running the shorter race turned out great! I ran the first part with my 14 year old son and enjoyed the whole event, pushing myself to do my best. To my great surprise (and mostly due to there not being very many people racing), after crossing the finish line I found out I had finished first in my age group for the 2 lap event. My first ever first place.

I still wish I’d been fit enough to take on the longer event, but changing my goal to something more realistic made for a day of success beyond my expectations. (Next year the 5 or maybe even 10 lap event is mine!)

Leadership, Vision

The larger and more complex the organization, the shallower the top leader needs to be.

(How’s that for a provocative opener?!?)

In any charity, school, business, city, or country the first chair leader (Executive Director, Principal, CEO, President, etc.) has two essential aspects to their role; internal duties and external duties. The internal duties mostly relate to the effective operation of the entity, they are strategic and often complex. They require insight, experience, and sound judgment. I think of it as the deep end of leadership. Most leadership training is focused on developing these abilities.

External duties have more to do with being the symbolic representative of the organization to the stakeholders, constituents, and general public. Being the “face and voice” that shows up at key events, says some inspiring words, shakes hands, and generally flies the flag on behalf of the entire operation. Being good at this part of the role involves a more generic skillset of relational abilities and emotional intelligence. To some it looks like shallow work, but it is essential to any impactful organization.

In small charities the first chair leader is likely to spend a lot of time and energy on deep leadership matters. They may be the issue expert, program manager, primary fundraiser, director of finance, and HR department all at once. With few others to share the load the leader has to be intimately involved in every strategic aspect of operations.

As organizations grow that changes. More people, more resources, more projects and programs; more than any one leader can effectively manage in a hands-on fashion. The internal (deep) demands eclipse the capacity of one person. Delegation becomes a crucial skill and things happen without the Executive Director’s involvement or even awareness.

And the external (shallow) duties should grow simultaneously.

More donors, more events, more media, more speeches, more photo ops.

Eventually the role of the top executive becomes more spokesperson than technician. They have a trusted team of professionals who (preferably) have greater skill and insight than the leader does in their areas of responsibility. The leader’s role comes more facilitative within the organization as they rely on others to get the right done the right way.

Of course top leaders should never abandon deep leadership entirely. They need to retain their ability to probe the operations and programs of the organization and be able to provide more than mere bullet points when questions and issues arise. Their credibility and that of the charity depend on them being more than a talking head.

It can be argued that the most recent federal elections in both Canada and the United States have seen leaders chosen for their shallow end skills. Both Prime Minister Trudeau and President Trump were and continue to be critiqued as being little more than media sensations with little comprehension of the deeper aspects of their roles. (Interesting that they represent somewhat opposite wings of the political spectrum). The relative validity of those assessments is not essential to this post. What is relevant is that both countries voted for leaders whom they saw as exemplifying the qualities and aspirations of the people, not leaders renowned for their policy insights.

Image does matter.

The point is this: First chair leaders are both the symbolic and the strategic point person for their organizations. They need to be both shallow and deep. Insiders (boards, employees, committed volunteers) tend to undervalue the shallow/symbolic aspects of leadership which are crucial to the growth and sustainability of the organization. Those aspects should be constantly considered in their hiring, development, performance review, and priorities but they often aren’t.

How do you approach and improve both the shallow and deep aspects of your leadership?

Leadership, Resources
I am wrong about a great many things. That is one of the most fundamental things I believe to be true. It serves as a much needed reminder to me that my assumptions, educated guesses, hunches, and intuition are all vulnerable to error and I had better be humble and cautious about my views. That said, a couple recent episodes of the Freakonomics podcast challenged me significantly. They feature interviews with Charles Koch, an American billionaire and (along with his brother) one of the most reviled figures among many people for his involvement in politics and his efforts to reframe the world according to his own vision. Host Stephen Dubner has a knack for being insightful and challenging his listeners more than his guests. He didn’t treat Koch with kid gloves, but he did give him ample opportunity to express himself without interruption. I was expecting either spin or bravado from Koch; that would seem to fit the image of him I’ve seen in much of the media. Instead, what I heard was a thoughtful, sincere, and historically astute perspective that admitted to failures and didn’t claim to have all the answers. That’s not to say that I agree with or support all his views or that I don’t think there is an aspect of intentional image construction happening. Just that I was surprised by the humanity and humility conveyed. The leadership lessons here are important reminders for me:
  1. Everyone has a story. I can easily judge and categorize people into convenient stereotypes and forget their fundamental humanity. I can disagree with Charles Koch without demonizing him.
  2. Learning is better than assuming. I was going to skip these episodes, confident that nothing Charles Koch could say would be of value to me. I was wrong about that. His business philosophy and some of his policy perspectives are well worth my consideration.
  3. Break the Echo Chamber. I have a tendency to only listen to those who’s views I already know and agree with. While reinforcing my convictions is a good habit, I need to be intentional about exploring ideas, possibilities, and people who differ from me so that my approach remains pliable and open to truth.
  4. Discussion is always better than debate. Taking the time to genuinely listen to these podcasts with curiosity rather than just to support my assumptions was worthwhile. The same is true in other differences of opinion. Most perspectives have some sincerity behind them, and starting from a combative posture prevents learning on both sides.
Leaders with a short term approach can achieve quick results by dismissing and ridiculing those with opposing positions. Being radical and polarizing makes for compelling takes and can bring an influx of passionate support. But it’s a fool’s game in the long run. The greatest impact comes from those who do the harder work of seeking to understand the reasons behind the views and find ways to connect rather than attack. Common ground isn’t always possible, but failing to diligently look for it limits the potential for winning people over or finding a higher possibility. The cynic in me wants to dismiss Charles Koch’s interviews as some kind of strategic manipulation with dark ulterior motives. That may yet be the case. But I continue to believe that the risks of optimism are better than the losses of suspicion. When have you had to change your opinion of someone?


Effective leaders seem to have a knack for being a couple steps ahead of things.
They spend a significant amount of their time and energy in the future, anticipating and preparing for opportunities and challenges that others haven’t yet imagined. With an almost prophetic sense of what is to come, leaders are quietly working behind the scenes on strategies and decisions long before they come to light for the rest of their organization. And they’re always well underway on the next one by the time this one is announced.
It can look a little like this…  This is an important quality and one that is important for any organization that aspires to growth in scale, significance, or impact. Or really, for any organization that aspires to anything more than a decline to irrelevance and closing the doors. But it can also cause dangerous tension among people who aren’t always attuned to the future thinking of the leader (or leaders, team is a great benefit to future thinking).
The problem arises when leaders forget that they are working ahead.
They have spent their time wrestling through the options, implications, and emotions of a matter to their satisfaction before the rest of the team may have even been aware that it was a possibility.
Too often, leaders don’t allow or expect others to need the same process of time and consideration to become comfortable with a new strategy or situation. They forget that they live in the future and others remain in the present. Add in a measure of abrasiveness or insecurity and you soon find a frustrated leader wishing the others weren’t stuck in the past.
That is almost always accompanied by a demotivated team who feel excluded, disempowered, and taken for granted.
While both perceptions may have some element of truth, the driving issue is probably a leader who has simply forgotten about the leadership time lag and the need for everyone to have a chance to process what is happening for themselves.
So how do we fix it?
Awareness is essential. Leaders have to understand that those not aware of the early stages of consideration haven’t had a chance to reach and support a shared conclusion. With that awareness leaders can plan change processes that factor in time for people to understand, explore, and prepare for the impact of what is coming. They may even involve more people early in the process. Beyond that, organizations with open communication create the possibility of either leaders or followers talking about the impact of the time lag; asking the others to adapt to the pace of change they need, and addressing the differences without them becoming a further drag on momentum or morale.
When has the leadership time lag been a problem for you? How have you seen it handled well?


The concept of loyalty has been very receiving a lot of attention the last few days. At risk of stating the obvious, and understanding that we can all benefit from coming back to basics once in a while; here are the elementary principles of loyalty and leadership.
  1. Loyalty to the cause > Loyalty to the leader. A healthy organization understands very clearly that no one person is more important than the task, purpose, or mission they have established as their reason for being. This is essential and non-negotiable. When I have been asked by friends who lead charities if I would consider joining their Board of Directors one of the questions I have to consider is: “Am I willing to fire my friend if that is in the best interest of the organization?”. We have to know where our loyalties lie.
  2. Personal loyalty must be earned. Every organization I know recognizes the advantages of loyalty. It increases engagement, decreases turnover, protects momentum, and accelerates the pace of work. These are only true if that loyalty is based on trust, and trust is a combination of Character and Competence. Trustworthy leaders have loyal followers.
  3. Loyalty is a result, not a requirement. Loyalty is essentially the product of Trust and Time. It cannot be commanded in a healthy organizational culture. Leaders who demand loyalty are pretty much always revealing their insecurity and it doesn’t end well for them or their organization. Cults and despots make loyalty their highest value; mature leaders recognize it as a gift from their followers.
As someone who often talks about the value of long term leadership and encourages friends and leaders I coach to find organizations where they can stay for several years I am a strong advocate of loyalty. I have erred on the side of being too loyal on a few occasions, but I’ll willingly rather risk making that mistake again rather than the opposite one.

Loyalty is a very good thing. And like most good things, it can be twisted, abused, and become very dangerous. But it doesn’t have to. In fact it really shouldn’t.

Healthy leaders remember the basics of loyalty and make them a part of how they lead. Which is great, because doing so makes it a whole lot easier for people to be loyal.

Catalyst, Leadership, Partners, Uncategorized

Catalyst’s new Partners Leadership Program is the culmination of 9+ years of actively working with charities across Canada and internationally to grow their leadership for greater impact in their fields. It brings together the very best of what we have learned in funding, coaching, consulting, and walking alongside charity leaders.

We are now actively recruiting organizations to join us in this intensive project.

The Program Overview gives the relevant information about eligibility and what the program involves. It is worth checking it out and passing it along to others who might be interested. In talking with several interested leaders one of the important aspects of the possibility of applying is the question of whether this is the right time in their organization’s story to take on something like this. The timing is definitely not right for everybody.

It is may not be a good time to apply if:
-You are in the midst of significant financial, strategic, or human resources turmoil. Crisis management is not what we are offering in this program. A certain level of stability is necessary to dig deeply into organizational culture and leadership over time.
-You are currently taking on several other major initiatives. Our partnership will require sustained attention and effort. It will demand continued focus and can’t succeed if treated as a small side project.
-The current leadership does not have the confidence of the board of directors. We understand that transitions happen unexpectedly for a wide variety of reasons, but for us to invest this much in a leader we want to anticipate them continuing in their role for 3-5 years or more.
-Your Executive Director is new to their role within the last 3 months. Possibly longer if they are entirely new to the organization. It is rare for a new first chair leader to be able to establish their own credibility enough that quickly to bring on an internal commitment of this scale.
-You aren’t sure you can work closely with either Catalyst or other potential partners. Some people just don’t click together.

On the other hand; this may be the perfect time for you to partner with us if:
-You are experiencing or anticipating greater organizational impact
-You feel plateaued as a leader or organization and want to shake things up a bit
-You want to grow the size, scope, strategy, and/or impact of your charity
-You want to lead with greater confidence -Your leadership team is ready to get significantly more effective
-The upcoming opportunities or challenges are going to be a stretch for you
-You are eager to both learn from and share with peer charity leaders
-You need some challenge and encouragement to bring out your best
-You have a sense that there is more to grow into personally, as a team, or as an organization

If you have any interest or curiosity about the opportunity let me know.


Who do you turn into under stress?
For many leaders that answer varies according to the type and amount of stress. Up to a point stress brings out the best in us. It brings greater focus, draws on our competitive instincts, and fires us up to take on the challenge, whatever it may be. That kind of stress (called eustress) is beneficial and a lot of the leaders I work with have a higher capacity for eustress than average. In fact, many of us crave it. We feel most fully ourselves when facing those situations.
On the other hand, too much stress of the wrong kind can have the opposite effect. Called distress, this tends to bring out our worst. Often we find ourselves responding in ways so different from our typical demeanour that we surprise ourselves. In my case, distress can bring out a domineering, critical, and combative side that is rarely helpful and often embarrassing.
Knowing the different types of stress and what tends to provoke our worse reactions can remind us of the need to have stress strategies to manage ourselves.
Which raises the second question:
Who do you turn to under stress?
When people talk about it being “lonely at the top” the implication is that there’s no one to turn to when things are tough. A western culture that continues to imagine leaders as some sort of invulnerable superheroes only exacerbates this pattern. And it does damage.
Leaders need people to turn to. We need supporters, sounding boards, advisors, and encouragers. Every one of us needs some wise and trusted friends who will take our call when distress begins. 
We also need habits and strategies for managing our stress both generally and when circumstances make it hardest.
Earlier this week I was finding this very hard to do. A variety of situations were combining to have me feeling a lot of distress, and my struggles with anxiety were piling on. I needed relief.
Conversations with my wife, a yoga class, lots of prayer, and ultimately a run along my favourite trails made a striking difference. Nothing outside of myself had changed, but everything was different. Somehow my perspective transformed and what had been overwhelming became manageable. Later a talk with one of my closest friends and confidants helped secure my state of greater peace.
None of this would have happened if I hadn’t been very intentional about my stress strategies. 
There are lots of other people I could have talked to: other friends, family members, acquaintances, clergy, and even the everpresent community of social media. All were available and in different ways appealing. But I am learning that being highly selective about who I share my struggles with in the midst of distress is critical. I need people who will hear me out, ask probing questions, reassure me of their love, and challenge me where I may be in the wrong. I need wisdom coupled with support, not blind allegiance or harsh reality checks.
I am learning that under stress, who I turn to is who I turn into.
I become more and more like the people, resources, and habits I rely on when I feel overwhelmed. That is a sobering understanding.
I’m not sure about the truth of the saying that you become the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. But I have seen many times that those we share our struggles with have a strong and lasting influence on our perspective, behaviour, and character.
Few of us make our best choices when facing distress. I am very glad this week that I have been intentional about anticipating that tough times are sure to come and learning what and who best help me respond the way I want to.
What are your stress strategies?

Catalyst, Leadership, Resources

As part of the application to our new Catalyst Partners Leadership Program interested charities submit a 3-5 year Organizational Leadership Plan.

For some this is a document they have at the ready and can simply convert to pdf and add to their application. But for the majority a leadership plan is little more structured than a couple lines in a strategic plan or a few vague ideas.

In the past I tried to create a universal template that charities could use to create a leadership plan, but I soon abandoned the idea as unwise.

The diversity of news and opportunities facing charities would require either a template far too detailed to be reasonable to far too vague to be complete. On top of that, nothing I designed could reflect the culture and style of each organization. In the end it was better to offer a broad overview of different people within or connected to the charity with some questions relevant to each group and include some resources we have seen as valuable. Setting that in a worksheet that provides space for identifying specific needs and interventions, budget, and room to lay out the plan proved more useful than anything else I could develop.

It is far from comprehensive and always in need of updating as we learn more, but it serves well to initiate good conversation and raise possibilities that may not have been considered. It also includes some focus on donors and fundraising that is not strictly leadership development but seems relevant.

Leaders have used the overview to discuss what should happen and then transferred the results to a format and style that fits their unique operating culture. Check out the latest version for yourself and let me know how we can improve it to better serve charity leaders. 

Organizational Leadership Plan Worksheet


I’ve never seen so many protests, rallies, and calls for activism.

In recent weeks I’ve had conversations with leaders trying to discern how to respond to ethical issues within their organizations as well as political ones in broader society. The specific concerns are different, but the heart of the matter is “When should a leader take a stand based on their own convictions, and how can they do that well in consideration of the impact it may have on their organization?”.

The challenge is real.

What a leader does always has a symbolic value as well as a practical one. Like it or not, leaders are a reflection of their organization and what a leader does is considered to represent the values, priorities, and agenda of their agency. The implications of a leader drawing a moral line in the sand can be significant, for better or for worse. There are many examples of these situations becoming the defining narrative of a leader’s tenure even if they had no desire for that to be the case.

So how do we decide when the risk is worth it?

First we should be aware of our own natural temperament. Some leaders are drawn to conflict; they are fired up by the chance to enter the battle and anticipate showdowns with enthusiasm. Others prefer a more conciliatory approach whenever possible. Knowing your tendency is helpful both for you and for those who may be advising you to understand.

The best response may be the opposite of your first inclination. Wisdom rarely acts without due consideration. There are times when a leader must follow their conscience with full awareness of the risk. The challenge is to determine when and how. There are many factors to consider, but to simplify, asking these questions may be helpful:
  1. Is the issue a matter of preference or morality? Some of us have a hard time distinguishing what we think is best from what is truly a matter of right and wrong. Considering whether a decent person could arrive at a different position than I have is a valuable way to test my convictions.
  2. Am I reacting as an individual or as the voice of my organization? We need to understand that while we are always accountable to the cause, not everything we believe is necessarily reflective of those values. Unless the issue directly relates to our mission and established priorities we are not free to leverage our role for credibility.
  3. What action is most appropriate? There are always a range of responses to moral problems and we need to know what we hope to accomplish when we speak up. Determining how vocal, specific, controversial, and public your stand should be requires wisdom. Counsel from trusted friends, mentors, or the board can help gauge the best approach.
  4. What are the most likely and worst case ramifications for the organization?  Loss of donations, reputation, legal matters, or relationships are all potentially relevant. Our sense of being in the right can make it hard to recognize the possibility for negative outcomes. Being prepared for both positive and negative replies is a basic best practice.
  5. Is reacting to this issue worth the risk? Having the courage of our convictions means accepting the consequences of our decisions. For leaders that also means considering what blowback may come from other employees, donors, opposing interests, or the general public. If it makes sense to act having considered these factors then we can act boldly and confidently.
In the end, there are essentially three options for a leader facing an ethical dilemma:

Stay silent
and hope that the issue resolves itself.

Speak up and take responsibility for whatever reaction follows.

Resign and handle the difficulty without the weight of leadership complicating things.

I admire people who have the courage to stand up for what they believe to be right. Courage is a basic qualification for leaders. But too many leaders have damaged their credibility by being unwise in their handling of potentially harmful conflicts. taking the time to answer these questions may be what you need to determine whether to take a stand and how to do it for the best outcomes.

When have you had to deal with an ethical challenge and how did you decide what to do?

Leadership, Resources
There is always more good stuff to do than time, energy, capacity or resource to do it all.

This is as true for individual leaders as for organizations. We spend a lot of time managing information and opportunities that may never come to fruition, and often feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of what we must (let alone could, or should) deal with day by day.

There are lots of advanced systems for effectively managing both time and information, but many of them fail to provide a fundamental perspective to figure out the relative importance of various possibilities, or the need to give some attention to less fruitful options as part of the ongoing process of identifying future areas of focus.

The simple approach I use to filter out what is unhelpful or irrelevant looks like this: Searchlight: I feel a strong responsibility to be aware of what is happening in the various fields in which we’re involved. I continually scan the horizons to see what sparkles back. Social media, especially Twitter, conferences, journals, and recommendations from people I respect get my attention. When something reflects our interest or values I pause to take a closer look.

Spotlight: Like a Broadway show, when I come across something that warrants greater attention I shine a spotlight on it. This not only allows me to see it better, but also exposes it for others. Insightful books, articles, and videos deserve a deliberate look and quite often to be shared. I use social media (Twitter: @catalystfndtn) to promote things I think you might want to see, as well as passing them on directly or speaking about them when I have the opportunity. Organizations we partner with always spend time in our spotlight before we engage.

Laser: Highly focused light has the power to shape, ignite, or even perform surgery. Our interactions with individuals and organizations are dedicated almost entirely to attempting to assist and influence leadership. This means we don’t spend time, energy, or funding on a lot of very important things. We have determined through pretty intense evaluation over nearly a decade that leadership is our focus and we strive to not be distracted from it, especially by other worthy possibilities.

There is a constant ebb and flow between these three lights. At some points in a given year or project it is  critical to do nothing but laser focused leadership development. At other times it is just as necessary to be searching broadly for new ideas, information, and potential relationships. No formula or balance is correct for every season. The challenge is to properly identify what kind of light we need to be using most and then apply it effectively, perhaps by using any of the efficiency strategies that are available.

Several years ago I used the Searchlight, Spotlight, Laser imagery in a talk explaining Catalyst’s strategy at the time. A leader for whom I have enormous respect came to me afterwards and said ” I get it: Searchlight, Spotlight, Laser. That’s what you do!” That is what we do.

A final thought: None of these lights function without a solid Generator providing the energy.

Learning what provides the power to do all of this has been an essential part of growing as a leader and an organization for Catalyst.