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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.

Christian media has been dominated in recent weeks by reports about Willow Creek Community Church founding pastor Bill Hybels. The many allegations of inappropriate conduct towards women are disturbing and must be fully addressed, but the leadership issue is the way the church leadership has responded to them. I don’t know any more than what is public media, so I won’t speculate on how this will all be resolved. But there are some important lessons for leaders, and particularly for governance.

Note: I am refraining from linking to reports on this situation because it is still developing.

Lesson #1: Everyone is vulnerable to failure.

Bill Hybels is a massive figure in evangelical circles globally. His vision, leadership, and teaching have played a huge part in church strategy around the world in the past few decades. His accomplishments are remarkable. He has also been a strong voice for the empowerment of women in leadership and for leaders to carefully watch their integrity.

It is very sad to think that any of the stories being shared are true.

But it should serve as a caution that success and charisma are not absolute. Everyone has temptations to violate their standards. Our first response to any similar scandal should be to take an inventory of our own lives and see where we need to be more diligent.

Lesson #2: Respond quickly and transparently.

Accounts show that concerns had been raised by credible people several times in the past. Some were directly to Hybels, others to members of the staff and board. There was no public response until outside media became involved. Even then, the investigations into the allegations were done only by internal leaders until far too late.

It undermines the credibility of the organization when it appears that there may have been a cover up. When years of complaints come out in just a few weeks it looks like a pattern, whether it is one or not. Err on the side of external trusted people to lead any investigation, and let people know that you are doing so.

Letting people know that you have heard the allegations, that you take them seriously, and that you are taking action to fully understand them as soon as possible should be expected. nothing less is a breeding ground for rumours and gossip. Often what people imagine in the absence of your statements is far worse than reality.

Lesson #3: Expect the waves to grow.

Where there is one accusation of impropriety there are often several. I suspect the leaders at Willow felt they had handled things completely, possibly more than once, before each new story surfaced. It must be a terrible feeling each time another allegation is brought forward. 

Wisdom would remind us that there is usually more beneath the surface than is initially apparent. So anticipate the possibility that things will escalate and/or deteriorate beyond the initial stage of concerns. Our natural desire to conclude the process needs to be tempered by the potential for additional unwanted surprises.

Lesson #4: Don’t rush for resolution.

Leaders tend to be action-oriented. Especially when dealing with controversy we want to bite the bullet, deal with the damage, and get back to work on what we’re really all about. As admirable and understandable as this is, it needs to be resisted.

A thorough outside investigation, time to properly consider what must be done, lots of space for truth-telling, and a determination to do what is right as far as that can be determined, even when it is costly is the required posture. The integrity if the organization requires it. This means slowing down, listening more, reserving judgment longer, and accepting that some people will accuse you of stalling. Better to be a little late on your final response than to have to start all over with egg on your face by hurrying.

Lesson #5: Align your loyalty.

As leaders we want the best for our people and our organization. We want to give the benefit of the doubt to those who have served well. We want to ensure that the mission goes forward. All of those good intentions can trap us into serious mistakes.

Our highest loyalties should be to our values and mission, not to the leaders or even the organization. We must be willing to make hard decisions about beloved founders, long-term staff, and amazing volunteers for the higher purpose of what is right and true. The responsibility to protect the organization cannot be fulfilled if doing so requires us to deny what the organization is really supposed to stand for. 

In painful situations we need to believe that there is something bigger than our own brands and bosses. There will be another leader, and if necessary there will be a new organization to rise up and take our place. There are far too many examples in this time of misplaced loyalty leading to an organization rotting from the inside and losing any meaningful voice or credibility.

Of course, all of this is easy to say from the sidelines. I sincerely hope those at Willow Creek Community Church and the Willow Creek Association will have the strength and wisdom to find their way through. I don’t envy them the season there are in, or the fact that they are doing it under such scrutiny. We need to support and honour those leaders who can do the incredibly costly work of leading through scandal.

And we need to learn from it so we can lead well if or when our turn comes.

Addendum: A couple readers have pointed out that I omitted something essential. The organization must prioritize caring for those who have been mistreated. Far too often they are excluded, condemned, slandered, and re-victimised by those who owe them the highest duty of care. I will add that I have also seen situations where the person accused was not cared for with tragic results. We must not let self-protection or fear of legal repercussions prevent us from offering support to those who are suffering.

For several years I’ve used running as an alternative way to meet with some of the leaders I advise. The combination of activity, nature, and being side by side brings a different quality to the conversation that can be helpful.

Today I added another sport to the arsenal: Stand Up Paddleboarding (SUP).

For those who haven’t tried it, SUP is sort of a cross between canoeing and surfing. You stand on a fairly large board and use a long paddle to make your way across the water. My wife and I have been doing it for a few years and we love it!

I’ve introduced a bunch of people to the sport and I always tell them; “The first 30 seconds it will seem impossible, but then you’ll settle in a bit and it will start to work really quickly”. With the right board, and a willingness to get wet occasionally, almost anyone can learn and enjoy it.

While paddling today the leader I was with commented that he could feel the muscles in his feet and lower legs working constantly to find and maintain balance. It’s absolutely true. It takes a while to get used to the constant corrections your body needs to make to stay upright. Most of it is subconscious, and it has to happen.

I think the same is true for finding balance in life and leadership. Especially when trying something new we often find that we are constantly having to make small adjustments to stay on top of things. We do a lot of it intuitively and spontaneously, but it can be fatiguing. Over time we become more comfortable and confident and find it all comes more naturally.

We also noticed today how much easier it was to stay balanced when we were going with the wind and waves. Somehow that extra momentum had us forgetting how tricky it really was, until we turned around and had to fight against it.

There are seasons of leadership where things are going pretty well and we can forget how complex and important leading really is. But when our course or the circumstances around us change we can suddenly find ourselves struggling to not go under, let alone to make any headway.

The leadership lessons from our SUP session pretty much write themselves. The challenge will be applying them.

The good news is, the leader I paddled with today is eager to come out again, and to take what we’re learning back to his organization. I think I’ll be “SUPsulting” with a few others this summer. 

What unusual activity had taught you something that has helped your leadership?

If you want to set up a runsult, SUPsult, or just a regular conversation about healthy leaders and healthy organizations you can contact us here.

Great Stories, Leadership
Most policy manuals are useless, and many are holding back results.

I’ve had several conversations and consulting sessions in the last couple months where organizational policies featured prominently. In the midst of cultural shifts in expectations and greater diversity of demographics and opinions, the desire to establish clarity often results in voluminous binders of procedures and practices that take days to read; let alone to write, review, and implement.

And a lot of it is garbage.

I don’t mean that politically. It’s not the specific content of the policies that concerns me. It’s the sense that we need to define and monitor so much of the behaviour of our teams.

We don’t.

In fact, if your organization feels like you need policies for just about every eventuality that may occur it is more than likely that you have an unhealthy culture where the push for authority and control has replaced any form of meaningful trust and communication. 

A long term successful leader I spent time with recently said: “We create policies when we want to avoid conversations”. It rings true.

If our people can’t make even basic decisions on their own we have the wrong people. Or, more likely, if we haven’t developed that ability in employees then we are the wrong leaders.

Of course there are regulatory and legal realities that require us to enact policies. Those are unavoidable, whether they are well designed or not. Some things need explicit instructions. The danger comes when we begin establishing rules when principles or values would suffice.

I almost cheered out loud when I heard on The Unpodcast that GM’s CEO Mary Barra, in the midst of  bankruptcy and enormous pressure, focused on improving organizational culture in part by reducing the reliance on policies. She replaced a ten page workplace dress code with two words: Dress Appropriately.

I love it! If it can work in one of the largest corporations why can’t small and mid-sized organizations follow the example?

Healthy leaders build healthy cultures where control is minimized and conversations abound. Instead of detailed policies that feed autocratic supervision and motivate people to look for loopholes, they take a strong stand on values and establish principles that honour maturity and empower choice wherever possible. Trust becomes a real thing when we let people make the decisions they are capable of making.

You may be thinking, “Sure, but what happens when someone does something inappropriate and we don’t have a specific rule about it?”.

Probably something very similar to what would happen with a rule: you have a conversation with them. But in this case it is educational instead of disciplinary. Over time the few who don’t fit will either choose to leave or give every reason for termination. And the people you want to keep will appreciate being treated with respect. I’d bet they’ll start aspiring to higher standards instead of gravitating to the bare minimum.

Tell me: What’s one policy you could simplify to see how people will respond?

If you’re working on understanding, assessing, and improving your organizational culture we can help.

Catalyst, Leadership
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day.

As always, some people make a really big deal out of it, spending small fortunes on flowers, chocolates, gifts, and dinner out. Proclaiming their love as publicly as possible as an expression of romance.

As always, others point out that Valentine’s is a fabricated holiday that really doesn’t reflect the true story of St. Valentine, and serves mostly to guilt people into unnecessary stereotypical purchases. They claim that they don’t need a nudge from a consumer driven date to demonstrate their feelings.

I can’t help but wonder if those who criticize the holiday really are regularly showing their partners how much they love them. 

The simple truth is that, as artificial as it may be, many of us benefit from the reminder.

The nudge works.

Like romance in an intimate relationship, organizations are better, richer, and stronger when they celebrate their successes. And like romance, celebration is easily and often overlooked.

This is true in many areas of our lives. We are intentional about building habits and rituals that regularly remind us of the things we believe are important. So we have an annual physical, schedule date nights, set reminders on our phones, and wear accessories that nudge us to pay attention and take action.

For me, that’s a big part of going to church.

Some leaders don’t fully appreciate the significant impact skilled celebration can bring for their organization. And few consistently make it a priority. It’s easier to invest ourselves in problem solving and strategy sessions than in leading a culture that brings out the best in people. 

But every organization is better when leaders leverage the power of celebration.

I was honoured last year when a leader I respect asked me to be his “celebration coach”. He wants me to remind him to celebrate the things that matter, and to help him to do it well. He needs the nudge.

So whether you like Valentine’s Day or not, it’s a good idea to find some way to remind yourself to show your love for the people you care about.

And if you want to lead your organization to be healthy, vibrant, and as impactful as possible, you need to find a way to ensure that you don’t take celebration for granted. You might even want to find yourself a coach.

Catalyst offers workshops in Celebration for leaders, teams, and organizations. Contact us for more information.