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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?
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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 www.reactiondashboard.com
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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.
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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.
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Great Stories, Leadership

Today is Martin Luther King Jr Day in the United States of America. The commemoration of the great non-violent civil rights leader seems especially poignant this year when current politics leave that country seemingly more divided and more dangerous than at any time I can remember.

King’s most famous speech is “I Have A Dream” recorded August 28, 1963 in Washington, DC. I’ve read or listened to excerpts from this speech many times but today was the first time I sat down and watched the whole thing.

You should do so too: https://youtu.be/H0yP4aLyq1g

I don’t think I’ve ever heard the first 12 minutes of his historic presentation. The focus has always been on the inspiring final parts where Rev. King casts a vision for a more equal, more moral, and more just nation. Those words about his dream and freedom ringing, and being free at last are burned into the culture. As they deserve to be. But prior to that; in the first 2/3 of his comments, the tone is nothing short of revolutionary.

The message is not only aspirational but passionately activistic.

His critiques on segregation policies and racist people are sharp, incisive, and demanding. He calls for nothing less than direct, impatient, and urgent uprising to overthrow the evil of his time. He is calling for a confrontation, albeit a confrontation using the tactics of peace and moral authority in the face of violence and abuse.

Somehow history has softened the speech and ultimately the man. Martin Luther King jr. is seen more for his beautiful ideals than for his demand for immediate action. Raising him to iconic status has been accompanied by dulling the sharp edges of his message. To borrow an image from C.S. Lewis in the Chronicles of Narnia, we’ve tamed the lion.

That seems to be the way time functions.

When we want to identify a leader as broadly good we do so in part by quietly filing off the most dangerous or demanding parts of their stories. Many would point out that we’ve done the same with Jesus, who was Rev. King’s inspiration. Making a prophet more palatable is a natural process, especially over the course of a few generations. I understand why it happens, and I suppose there are even some benefits to it happening. But I, for one, want to have the courage to see my heroes in their raw and unvarnished reality. I want to face the harshness of their words and hardness of their example and be challenged by them in as much truth as I can find.

Take the 17 minutes today to watch the full video above.

Don’t just settle for the slightly sanitized highlights. Watered down heroes can never inspire wholehearted responses.
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Great Stories, Leadership
I’m a strong advocate of team leadership. Reality is too complex, and the challenges are too great for Lone Rangers to effectively lead an organization to significant impact over time. That said, team has its limitations.

I’ve been a Bruce Springsteen fan for about 30 years and I’m enjoying his just released autobiography Born To Run. In it he repeatedly describes his role and approach in leading the E Street Band to one of the longest and most successful dynasties in rock history.
“In the beginning I knew I wanted something more than a solo act and less than a one-man-one-vote democratic band. I’d been there before and it didn’t fit me. Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb. The examples are many, beginning and ending with the Beatles. Still, I wanted good musicians, friends and personalities I could bounce off of. I wanted the neighborhood, the block. That’s where all the great rock bands come from and there’s something about that common blood or even just the image, the dream of it, that stirs emotion and camaraderie among your audience.”
In other chapters he writes of the importance of having the final say on all matters. “The Boss” is more than just one of the all-time great nicknames, it is an essential part of his identity as a musician and performer.

I’m not convinced that Springsteen’s is the only viable model of leadership in a rock band, or a charity, or any other endeavour. But I have seen enough examples of organizations committed to team leadership lacking the clear authority or gumption to make tough decisions that I know someone has to be willing and responsible to make the call.

The book reveals how determined Bruce has been to become the greatest rock star in the world. Whether he’s achieved that may be debatable, but he’s certainly on the list.

If you or your organization want to leave your own mark in whatever field you choose, you have to know who is taking responsibility for getting there.

It also helps if you can write great songs… https://youtu.be/IxuThNgl3YA
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Great Stories, Leadership

I spend a lot of time encouraging people to dream ambitious dreams and pursue them with dedication. We talk about how dreams may change, but honestly not very much about what happens when we give our very best and still come up short.


What happens when we fail?

I was quite impressed by this interview with Canadian marathoner Rob Watson minutes after running the London Marathon, and not finishing fast enough to qualify for this summer’s Olympics in what may have been his last realistic chance to do so. You can see it for yourself here.

Rob has a reputation for being open and honest, but here he goes way past that into raw vulnerability. The facial expressions tell even more than the words.

Many leaders I know can relate. In fact, it is often only the process through failure that brings us the depth, perspective, and perseverance required for meaningful success later. However, knowing that doesn’t diminish how badly it sucks to have to go through it.

There’s a phrase in distance running that applies: Embrace The Suck. It refers to facing lousy weather, difficult courses, and general crappy runs and races with an honest attitude that accepts the reality but doesn’t let it overwhelm.

When I am trusted to help someone through failure one of the key things I’ve learned to do is to be sure that we take the time to really experience all the awful emotions that come so powerfully. Spouting encouraging catchphrases and cheer up slogans is not helpful at the start. Rushing to get over it is empty and denies the painful truth involved.

The same is true for leaders in any organization. Optimism and moving on are great, but there is a time and place for them. There is also a time and place for acknowledging the breadth of the impact of the failure and letting it sit long enough to become a lesson and a source of future strength.

Dreams, goals, and ambitions are pretty much essential for leaders and organizations. Truly great leaders not only understand that failure is part of the process, but that rushing past the failure isn’t wise.

For those of you who just finished your version of the marathon and didn’t accomplish what you’ve been working so hard to achieve; I am sorry. In my own way I have been there too. You will get through this somehow, and you’ll probably emerge with newer insight and dreams. But in the meantime things are really going to suck for a while. Let me know if I can help.

How have you experienced failure in your dreams and what have you learned from it?
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Years ago when I was an Inter-Varsity staff member working at Ontario Pioneer Camp I had little contact with our National Office staff. I confess I saw them as administrative pencil pushers and policy cops who neither understood nor added much to the “real” work I was doing.   How wrong I was.   The thing is, my sentiments were common then, and they still are. Many organizations, especially those with staff and programs that are scattered across a region, nation, or the planet, have some level of tension and confusion over the role of Head Office. Field staff find them irrelevant or irritating, donors don’t see the value in supporting work that is removed from the frontlines, and even the office team can struggle to see how their efforts fit into the grand vision being accomplished “out there”.   Yesterday I was at a lunch event with Youth For Christ Canada and they showed this video:     How good is that?!?   In less than three and a half minutes they’ve captured the crucial connection the national office plays in supporting the field staff and expressed it in a way that affirms both roles, tying them directly into the reason the organization exists.   If I worked for YFC Canada this would be a huge encouragement to me. I’ve already passed it on to some other organizations as an example of what can be done to show the relevance and value of supporting what some people ignorantly dismiss as overhead. Well done YFC! I hope other organizations will affirm their office staff as well as you have done here.
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What does growth mean in your organization? In most it is about increasing budget, programs, staff, or facilities. All of these are good and at times appropriate, but there is another growth strategy that is often overlooked: Growth in Influence Nearly twenty years ago I spent 53 weeks at a fairly small camp in Central Ontario for a leadership development program. At that time Medeba was a leading practitioner of adventure learning and experiential education, topics which continue to be of great interest to me. The year there is one of the most formative experiences in me discovering my strengths and weaknesses, and set me on the path of pursuing the understanding of leadership that is the focus of what I do with Catalyst. In the years since, I’ve continued to associate with Medeba and now my children are campers in their summer programs. A lot has changed, nearly every building has been updated and there are many new activities. The internship program I participated in has a new name, Prosago, and a refined strategy for developing young leaders. While many summer camps are barely holding on financially, Medeba has been able to maintain sustainability and even pursue significant capital projects to support their vision of helping young people say “yes” to God. Still, the camp is essentially the same size as it was when I was there, and for many years before that. Instead of trying to grow to welcome more campers, they’ve determined that they can have greater impact by growing their influence on other camps. Where most might see competition, the leadership of Medeba see partners in a greater cause. With this in mind Medeba has become very active in local, provincial, national, and international camping networks; using staff time to add value to these associations. They have made many of the top notch resources they’ve developed available to others at little or no cost, and speak at training events across Canada and around the world. Executive Director Bruce Dunning’s book God of Adventure is being used as a textbook in colleges as well as a resource for experiential educators in many places. It takes uncommon perspective and humility to decide to grow influence across an industry instead of growing your own organization. Medeba is not the only example doing this, but they are one worthy of both appreciation and imitation. What are you doing to grow your influence beyond your organization?
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Tomorrow morning I will be getting up much earlier than I really want to, bundling my boys up in the dark, and driving through the cold to strap on my skates and referee a couple games of hockey.
I’ve been a volunteer with Reach Forth for several years now. At this level the role of a ref is as much to teach the rules as it is to enforce them.
Sometimes I’ll blow the whistle and stop play just to explain what went wrong and not penalize anyone. If they don’t learn the rules while they’re young the game won’t work when they get older.
The same is true in every organization.
Your culture is made up of the official and unofficial rules of how you interact.
I was intrigued to come across this image that purports to be cartoonist Chuck Jones’ Rules for Wile E. Coyote and the RoadRunner
http://imgur.com/as30muy
I can’t vouch for the authenticity, but I love the idea that even the creator of the story world posted the rules for himself to follow. He knew that even that little culture needed reinforcement or it would become something other than what he intended.
What are you doing to clarify and reinforce the culture where you are?
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