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Leadership, Resources
Every leader, heck, every person, needs to handle the stress of life effectively. That takes many different forms of course.

I would risk arguing that charity leaders have a greater need to care well for themselves. Admittedly, these are the people I work with, coach, and support on a daily basis; but I think the fact that these people are giving themselves to address the urgent and deep needs of society that all too often slip through the cracks makes them more vulnerable to burn out.

A generation ago overwork was often affirmed. Being able to push yourself further and harder was the mark of leadership excellence. Unused vacation days and minimal sleep were badges of honour for too many of us.

That has changed dramatically.

Today there is a higher awareness of the cost of demanding too much from ourselves and others. Burn out is seen as a failure of the system, not a sign of personal weakness. Our growing understanding of mental health and wellness have given rise to a self-care industry that one source estimates at 3.7 Trillion US dollars globally each year. And the trend is only growing.

This is a long overdue and welcome development in HR practices, and in society as a whole. We can often notice people encouraging one another to do some self-care. In fact, it has reached the point of being pointedly satirized in some circles.

Leaders I talk to have two common concerns about self-care:
1. How do we encourage our team to care well for themselves so they are able to care for others?
2. How do we know when we’ve done enough?

I have a whole 90 minute seminar on Self-Care and Stress Strategies (contact me to book a workshop) but here are a couple basic considerations.

Self-Care is a lifestyle, not an event. It is about developing and maintaining healthy habits that provide the physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, and relational energy needed for all of life’s demands. One evening of ice cream and Netflix is no cure for weeks or months of personal neglect.

Self-Care can easily become Self-Indulgence. Particularly for those who don’t have healthy habits in place. Swinging the pendulum into gluttony, in any form, is not a remedy. Short term excess will not bring lasting relief.

Work/Life balance is a myth. The idea that we can “have it all” is damaging in the reality of having to make hard choices on spending our time and energy. There are seasons when we sacrifice one aspect of ourselves because of the demands on another aspect. Over time we hope to live in alignment with our values and priorities by making continuous course corrections.

It’s supposed to be hard. Making a meaningful difference is always costly. There are few shortcuts and no free passes. Some leaders are surprised by how difficult it is to lead, particularly at the beginning of their leadership journey. We do others a disservice when we don’t acknowledge clearly the challenges inherent in doing things that matter.

Every effective leader has to be, or become, a healthy leader. Every effective organization has to be, or become, a healthy organization. Helping that to happen is what Catalyst is all about.

One final thought: Don’t turn this into a Millennial thing. While there are excellent insights to be gained from generational patterns, each of us is much more than our demographics. Assumptions based on stereotypes are one of the things that make more self-care necessary. People are people first, statistics much later.

Leadership, Resources
One of the most frequent challenges the leaders I help deal with is how to manage their workload and their team. Often the answer to both issues is getting better at delegating; which is much easier said than done.

Like you, I’ve been well versed in the typical delegating strategies and ideals:
-If someone can do it 80% as well as you can they should be doing it
-Focus your energy on the few things that only you can do
-More time is saved by training someone to do the task than by continuing to do it yourself indefinitely
-Start with less crucial tasks and grow as trust and competence allow
-Never delegate responsibility without the accompanying authority

All of these are often very helpful guidelines, but recently I’m noticing a corollary that I think informs why many strong leaders struggle to follow the well-worn principles.

We have to delegate the capacity to fail.

Time and time again I see leaders attempt to delegate tasks and responsibilities to their team members only to step in and take control when they aren’t handling things well enough. The result is demoralized staff, a continually overworked leader, and decreased trust for everyone.

The vigilance required to be always ready to swoop in and rescue a situation is more draining much of the time than just keeping it on your plate in the first place.

We have to learn how to let people struggle, falter, and fail.

I am deeply aware of how hard this can be. I can immediately recall multiple situation where I took back leadership from someone because I saw them struggling and couldn’t stand by while things suffered. In some of those cases I still think I did the right thing. In all of them my intent was good.

The problem was that I didn’t actually delegate. I didn’t trust them enough to let them fail.

A leader who is truly committed to the development of others has to accept the reality that failure is essential for leadership growth. If I can’t allow that to happen I can have many assistants, but no leaders on my team.

In practice this means we need to invest more in people, not less. We need to build them up to the point where they know when to ask for help, and that doing so will be received as strength rather than weakness. We need to train them to identify failure, address it, and share the learnings openly. We need to actually trust.

And we need to make a point of sharing our failures openly, honestly, and without shame. We need to make failure an expectation of the process of growth. We need to model imperfection, adaptation, and recovery.

Unfortunately for many leaders our desire for control and the insecurity that drives us to maintain a false image of perfection will undermine our potential to delegate, and we will prevent our team and our organization from reaching our potential.

One of the more popular and powerful workshops we offer is Identity and Insecurity. If you think it might be helpful to you and your team please contact us to talk about it.

Most leaders love strategy.

Laying out plans and priorities for future results is fascinating and oh-so appealing. It offers a sense of accomplishment right now for things that may not happen for years. 

So much of what has been provided under the banner of leadership training and development is rooted in the idea that the right strategy is the secret to success. If everybody’s doing it, it must work!

Of course it doesn’t.

Real life has a funny way of interrupting our well designed plans and forcing us to adjust, improvise, or abandon what made perfect sense not too long ago. Plans change. People change. Circumstances change.

So we assess the changes and redevelop our strategy again. And again. And again. And so it goes.

The problem isn’t that our strategies are wrong, and it certainly isn’t that we shouldn’t have strategy. The problem is that we don’t want to accept the reality that strategy is tenuous.

Strategy gives a false sense of control, but real leadership requires adaptability.

Within the Strategy/Execution/Culture trio, Execution is always shifting to circumstances. Culture should be mostly stable. Strategy is somewhere in between. It doesn’t get tossed by every wave, but it must respond to changing sea conditions.

With this understanding we can be intentional about approaching Strategy in ways that are useful and realistic:

1. Don’t get hung up in the details. A strategic plan is not a business plan; it is a broader set of priorities and intentions that get worked out at the granular level by each working group on a daily basis. It outlines the field of play but doesn’t diagram every sequence of activity.

2. Write strategy in ink, not in stone. Execution can be recorded on a white board, Strategy is significantly more lasting, but certainly not permanent. Carve culture into the trees and walls of your organization.

3. Develop Strategy in context. Strategic planning is neither idealism nor pessimism. It is better understood as crafting the next chapters of a longer story connecting your organization’s entire past with your hopes for the future. In fact, I use a visual timeline process as the core of my strategic planning process. It engages people far more effectively than a stodgy budgeting exercise.

4. Hold Strategy close, but not tight. A strategic plan that lives untouched on a shelf or hard drive is useless. It needs to be simple enough to be referenced often in decision making. It also needs to be understood as imperfect and open to adjustment or even wholesale change if necessary.

None of this is new insight, but it may be a needed reminder for leaders who are craving stability and certainty in a constantly shifting reality. Don’t fall for the lie that Strategy = Control. It never really did, and it absolutely never will.

What are the key things you keep in mind when working on your Strategy?

My parents met as leaders of the local wolf cubs group, part of the Boy Scouts. So it’s no surprise that I was a regular member of Beavers, Cubs, and Scouts growing up. I don’t remember it all that well, but it was a part of my formative years.

A few years ago one of my sons was invited to join the current Cubs group so we went on registration night in September to check it out. On the way in I was chatting with another dad and tried to introduce myself: “Hi, I’m Chris” reaching out to shake his hand. He gave me a strange look, ignored my extended right hand, and offered his left hand with a corrective “This is how we do it in Scouting”. I sheepishly apologized for forgetting the subcultural tradition after 30+ years and went in to learn more. To sign up I was told we needed to buy the full uniform, pay in advance for the weekly dues and major activities, and commit myself to a role in the spring fundraising event. All before attending a single meeting to see if he liked it!

I walked to the car thinking “No wonder Scouting has declined so much”.

Of course I do the same thing sometimes. There are groups I’m part of that don’t make many allowances for beginners. We take a sort of pride in our form of exclusivity; whether it’s entry standards, performance,  jargon, rituals, or whatever.

You might be thinking my point is that every organization should be sure there is an inviting and well supported on-ramp for newcomers. But that’s not it.

It’s not a problem to be exclusive unless you don’t mean to be or can’t sustain it.

The U.S. Marines have been effectively recruiting for years with their “The Few, The Proud, The Marines” slogan. It sets exactly the tone they intend.

The leadership question here is: Does your organization have, and promote, an approach to outsiders that is as invitational as you really want to be?

Your entry points should accurately reflect the real culture you are trying to establish: 
-If you have an uncommon culture you need to train people to assimilate effectively.
-If you want more people you may need to accept that some of them shake with the wrong hand at first.
-If you only accept the very best, make the standards foremost in your communication. 

Your outward facing messaging has to align with your current goals and the reality of the broader culture in which you exist. If not you will not get the responses you are looking for.

And by the way; my son only stuck with scouting long enough that we couldn’t get our money back on the uniform.

For many Christians today marks the beginning of the season of Lent, a time of reflection on the realities of suffering in the world.

Most leaders don’t need a reminder that life is often hard.

Not only is leadership inherently complex, but most of the leaders I work with are in charities, seeing to make a difference in some of the most difficult situations in our communities and internationally. They spend every day neck deep in the messiness and injustice that I often choose to avoid. They choose to do the hard stuff.

Beyond that, none of us are immune from the vagaries of life. We deal with our own medical challenges, financial pressure, relationship issues, self-doubt, and every common suffering. 

It can easily be overwhelming.

Dealing with crisis, difficulty, or a particularly challenging season is often the measure of any leader.  Here are five things to keep in mind:

1. Face Reality. Be explicitly honest with yourself about the truth of the situation. Dig deep enough to expose what is beneath the surface and refuse to pretend things are better than they are. Make a point of hunting down the elephants in the room. You can’t address problems you can’t (or refuse to) see.

2. Describe the Difficulty. Communicate to your stakeholders how hard it will be to get through this. Don’t sugarcoat it, don’t exaggerate. Lay out the facts with ruthless commitment to the truth. Share how costly it will be to overcome so people know what they are being asked to commit to.

3. Affirm Hope. Hope is the currency of change. People need to believe that together we can and will get through this. You may be surprised how much difficulty people will embrace and endure when they see the possibility of success. Offering a compelling vision of what can be on the other side of the pain is an essential part of preparing for it.

4. Offer An Opt Out. Wise leaders understand that there are any number of reasons why some people may be unable or unwilling to take on the challenge ahead. When the demands will be high it is better to encourage them to carefully consider whether they are ready to commit, and to have an open and shameless opportunity to gracefully bow out if necessary. This also galvanizes those who stay to stick together. Embrace the idea of “challenge by choice”.

5. Go First. As a rule of thumb leaders should be the last to benefit and the first to suffer. If anyone must take on extra work, accept a pay cut, give more or receive less in any way; integrity expect the leaders to step up first. Your willingness to commit invites and inspires the same from others.

Lent is a deliberately challenging season of discipline for those who participate. They choose to undergo some level of sacrifice to better understand the suffering of others and to prepare themselves for future difficulties. But it also prepares the faithful for fuller celebration of joy, hope, and love when the season concludes with Easter. 

The same is true in leadership. If you can take on your season of sacrifice well you will strengthened for your future and more prepared for both seasons of struggle and of success.

Most of the time leaders are wise to try to maintain a sense of stability. Constant urgency is a recipe for burnout, unhealthy turnover, and ultimately a short and unproductive term of leadership. Overreacting is a sure sign of insecurity and/or immaturity.

Wise leaders try to maintain an even keel and a confident posture even in times of difficulty.

But there are exceptional situations. Occasionally a leader recognizes that the organization is under-reacting to reality and the correct response is to raise the alarm and call all hands on deck for the emergency.

Over the years I have advised leaders that it it time to “create a crisis” as a way to energize staff, board, or donors to the raw reality of what is happening. It has been a rare occurrence, but there are some contexts where I believe it is justified:

-when a successful, long term leader is planning to resign or retire and there is no plan for succession I encourage the leader to set a specific date for their departure to force the organization to take the coming transition seriously

-when the ongoing strain on staff and volunteers to manage an excessive workload is pushing them into a lasting energy deficit I encourage the leader to suspend or cancel some programs until there is a sustainable staffing level

-when finances are putting day to day operations or critical strategic matters at risk I encourage the leader to sound the alarm for everyone (staff, board, donors) to rally to the cause and bring in needed revenue

-when an unhealthy culture, often centred around one or two individuals, is dragging down the team despite efforts to address the issues I encourage the leader to dismiss the damaging personalities and accept that their will be costs both in termination and in covering their workload until replacements can be hired and trained

I’m sure there are other examples.

The point is, when a leader sees clearly, and with solid evidence, that the organization is not responding properly to a dangerous reality it is their responsibility to act in ways that disturb the stability that enables issues to be ignored. It isn’t fun. It should be rare. But it is absolutely a tool every leader needs in their kit to be used when needed.

There are some leaders who create a crisis for the wrong reasons. Crisis can be used as a distraction from the leader’s own failings or an excuse for heavy handed decision making by leaders who are unable to build trust and loyalty from others. It can be a way to play on people’s emotions (particularly in fundraising) to overcome an absence of planning and accountability. And manufactured crisis can be a strategy for leaders whose insecurity makes them unable to be logical and strategic, depending on urgency and passion to mask their inadequacy for their role.

So when you encounter a leader who creates a crisis pause and consider: Is this a legitimate issue that has been dangerously ignored for too long; or is this a leader acting in desperation to cover up their lack or character or competence?

Great Stories
I’ve had many titles in my career: Program Director, Camp Director, Kayak Instructor, Youth Pastor, Church Planter, Board Chair, etc. But one of my favourites is definitely coach.

During my undergrad I earned my certifications in several sports and I’ve coached at least a dozen teams in half a dozen sports since then. This year I’m coaching one of my own kids for what may be the final time (and our PeeWee hockey team is undefeated as of this writing). Teaching, motivating, challenging, and encouraging athletes to do their best both individually and as a team is something I love to do!

But one of the most gratifying coaching opportunities I’ve ever had came a couple years ago when I leader I respect extremely highly asked me to become his “Celebration Coach”.

After being exposed to The REACTION Dashboard material several times he caught the emphasis on the power of skilled celebration to improve organizational culture and drive results and wanted some help to excel in this area. I was honoured to oblige.

We meet a couple times a year to talk through how he’s doing at invigorating celebration in his organization. It’s always a lot of fun and the early results are impressive. They are recognizing that, even in a place where celebration was already pretty strong, being intentional about pausing to notice and share the things that are meaningful and relevant makes a difference.

I was so proud last week when I got a text from Scott sharing his latest intentional celebration. His Board of Directors were completing the important but demanding task of establishing a Board Policy Manual. In an organization with a lot of history that is a monumental task and they had dug deep to do it well. 

Most boards would simply approve the finished document and move on to the next item on the agenda. But most boards don’t have a lead staff person who believes in the power of celebration.

Scott surprised the board with a cake decorated with the words “We Did It!” and a few excerpts from the complete document on top (picture above). It didn’t take a lot of time or money but it sent a powerful message of appreciation and success to the volunteers who make up the board.

It capped off a significant accomplishment with a brief and memorable moment of joy.

That’s a win!

What’s one creative way you have (or can) celebrate an accomplishment in your organization this week?

Leadership, Uncategorized
Toronto sports coverage this week has talked a lot about leadership, specifically whether Raptors star forward Kawhi Leonard is a leader or not.

While the specifics of that situation are debatable and ultimately probably of little importance to most of us, it does raise a couple interesting questions about what qualifies as leadership. Kawhi is indisputably one of the top basketball players in the world. He is also famously reserved.

Being an outstanding performer is often associated with being a leader. Being introverted is often seen as detriment to leadership. But in fact, neither is necessarily true.

Quiet people can be phenomenal leaders. They have advantages of observation and listening that extroverts struggle to accomplish. The ability to think before speaking and acting avoids impulsive errors and stability builds trust. In fact, some of the most powerful visionaries and communicators I know are strongly introverted in most settings.

Personality characteristics and profiles can be useful tools to understand and work effectively with others but they are inappropriate for deciding whether someone is or is not capable of leading.

In a similar way, the ability to perform at a high, or even elite levels is no reliable predictor of leadership potential. While there is certainly a tendency for us to look towards achievers for their example and best practices; the skills of leadership are often quite different from those of technical or individual excellence. It is often those who have less innate ability who have the capacity to equip others to succeed.

The best players are not often the best coaches.

So I really don’t know if Kawhi Leonard is a leader on his team. But I know that his personality and performance alone don’t tell us enough to figure out the answer.

Great Stories, Leadership, Resources
October 10, 2018 is the print release day for The REACTION Dashboard.

This book has been a work in progress for about four years and making it available to the world brings feelings of excitement, relief, anticipation, and hope. I am deeply grateful to al the leaders and friends who’s experiences and insights contributed to what it is.

The REACTION Dashboard is a tool that equips leaders to understand, assess, and improve their organizational culture. The tool is practical, simple, and quick. It pushes action and results. And it emphasizes the discipline of Celebration, a largely untapped approach that brings out the best in every member of your team.

The first half of the book is The Story, a fictional account of a handful of leaders applying the REACTION principles in realistic situations. The second half is The Elements, a direct explanation of how the tool works and how to use it in your context. It’s a quick read and highly memorable.

The book is available in print and ebook formats from all major retailers. Learn more at

Great Stories, Leadership
Are you more enthralled by vigilantes or saints? Do you get more excited when the bad guy gets gunned down, or when the troubled soul finds new hope? Are you more into stories of frontier justice or remarkable transformation?

I had an interesting Facebook dialogue last week about the power of redemption stories. It seems there is something deep in the human condition that resonates with tales of rising from the ashes and becoming something new. 

We also respond strongly to stories of retribution. The visceral thrill of justice served, especially when it is deserved, swift, and explicit; brings a primal satisfaction.

These contrasting plots show up in so much of our literature and entertainment that they are immediately recognizable. In fact, the tension between which outcome will occur is one of the most compelling ways to maintain our interest in a book, movie, or tv show. 

I find myself intrigued by the essential difference between those who we celebrate for a dramatic turn around in their character and behaviour and those who we cheer as they get what they have coming to them.

It’s an old concept, but it seems the key is repentance.

We are in an age when examples of prominent people being exposed for some of their worst deeds are frequent (and often long overdue). And yet, offering even as little as a sincere sounding apology that isn’t obviously written by a professional PR fixer is tragically rare. The pattern seems to be scandal – spin – silence where what we really want is scandal – sorrow – solution. Instead of protecting our power and positions, we need to see people own their errors and do what they can to make it right.

The problem is that we want to shortcut the process of redemption. We want to be welcomed back into the community without having to really face our failures and deal with the consequences. We want what some religious leaders have called “cheap grace”.

But grace isn’t cheap and reconciliation requires more. It requires repentance.

Repentance is the active process of understanding where we have transgressed, understanding the harm we have done, experiencing sorrowful regret, sincerely apologizing, and determining to do better. It is a painfully honest assessment of the attitudes, actions, and issues that contributed to our sins and a resolution to change. It depends on humility and accepting consequences before seeking restoration.

To be honest, I’m not all that good at repentance. I’d prefer if my screw ups could be overlooked and people would always give me an enormous benefit of the doubt. I want cheap grace.

But it never works in the long run.

So here’s to those who have the courage to see truth in the mirror and deal with it openly, honestly, and without a defensive agenda. We could sure use a lot more of that story.