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Leadership, Vision
It’s no coincidence that the words values and costs are so strongly associated.

Your values, political, organizational, or personal, mean close to nothing unless they cost you something.

We are living in a time when there is a rise in expressed hatred and bigotry. We are seeing the lowest versions of people and even nations celebrated. None of this is new, but it feels like a growing wave. It is difficult for leaders to know how to respond.

I hear increasing calls for public declarations of allegiance, participation in movements, and joining petitions. In some cases I sign on, in others I don’t.

I’ve written before about discerning when is the time to take a stand for or against a controversial situation.

But more and more the tension is arriving within organizations. As people are urged to declare their stance on matters that may have little to do with the reason for what you do they may try to force you into creating a policy, position, or proclamation. The pressure may come from the fringes of your team, donors, or network; or from core people.

With so much potential for being misinterpreted (even deliberately), the best guide comes from your organization’s established values. Even if you have never explicitly identified values, the stories you tell about yourselves and the things you do at your best reveal them fairly clearly. 

(Catalyst does offer a values training workshop that has been very helpful for recognizing values and distinguishing them from mission and vision; contact us to learn more about our story-based approach.)

When suspicion and consequences are both high, wisdom returns to core values and uses them to craft a response that expresses the heart of the organization.

A few tips to do this well:

1. Prioritize Posture Over Position: Unless the matter is truly essential for your organization, developing a new policy under duress can be a trap. Instead of rushing something that may raise further problems, express your core convictions and commit to learning and compassion. Those who demand a specific rule do not always have your organization’s interests in mind.

2. Offend On Purpose: Think carefully about the reactions you will face and craft your responses to align with those you serve, partner with, and relate to most closely. It may be impossible to avoid offending anyone, so decide who’s favour you can live without and anticipate their departure. If your organization is dependent on satisfying people who don’t fit your values you are better off suffering the short term impact of losing them than the long term impact of relying on them.

3. Refuse To Rush: The urgency of social media and the 24 hour news cycle make it seem like you need to determine your stance instantaneously. You don’t. Hurried decisions don’t allow for the quality of research and reflection that weighty matters deserve. Having to backtrack because of unanticipated consequences always undermines your credibility.

4. Listen Well: The loudest voices aren’t always right or even well-informed. Seek out input from those who have earned perspective over time whenever possible. Many matters are more nuanced than they may appear and the tendency to be caught in an echo chamber affects us all. There are some certainties and absolutes, but there are also many who oversimplify things to achieve influence.

5. Be Bold: Confidence comes from knowing that you have done your homework, followed your values, and gotten your key stakeholders aligned. When you decide to make a statement or take a stand do it with conviction. If it is worth your effort it is worth your courage, and worth the potential cost that may follow.  

Mature leaders don’t go looking for a fight in an area that isn’t core to their organization’s purpose. But if the heated tenor of our society requires you to enter the battlefield, do it well and with the assurance that your actions are driven by values you truly believe in.

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Leadership
I don’t sing well.

This isn’t any form of humility; it is an objective fact supported by decades of people cringing or shuddering when I let loose with my best efforts.. It has gotten somewhat better over the years but I can still vividly remember leading a campfire sing along as a teenager and being laughed at by the whole circle for how far off key I was. That kind of humiliation sticks with you.

I don’t get invited to sing these days, but I do a lot of other public communication. Writing, speaking, facilitating, hosting, and training are all regular parts of my work and personal life. I have a fair degree of confidence in all of them.

The danger is that I can be just as tone deaf in those forms of expression as in music.

And so can you.

It used to be that a lot of leadership communication was to a predictable and supportive audience of insiders and supporters who could be relied upon to give the benefit of the doubt if something sounded a little off. We got comfortable being off the cuff and informal because the conversations were with “the family”. Even if we messed up people assumed the best about us and did the work to figure out what we were trying to say.

Endless examples show us that’s no longer the case.

Today we have to expect that anything we say, write, or post may find it’s way into the public. And that includes those who may be motivated to find and exploit the flaws in our messaging.

Some of us are annoyed by this. We liked it when we could get away with using outdated vocabulary or borderline stories. We felt secure in the confidence that people would “know what I meant” and not “take it out of context”. We feel betrayed by being exposed to critique, ridicule, and judgment.

That may be justified, but it doesn’t matter. The raw reality is that we can no longer control the audience or reach of our message. We need to expect that what we say in a whisper may be broadcast widely.

This requires developing some new skills and sensitivities.

1. Cultural Awareness: As language and culture evolve it’s common for words and phrases that were once clear and acceptable to become ambiguous or even offensive. Haydn Shaw in his book Sticking Points reminds us that only about a generation ago thongs were sandals with a strap between the toes; that’s not the understanding your younger colleagues or community will assume if you talk about leaving yours at the beach.

We need to be active students of the culture, and not just our particular subculture, to ensure that we are sending the message we actually intend.

2. Expertise vs. Opinion: Leaders, like teachers, can easily get into the habit of expecting our ideas to be highly valued. We’re used to people listening to us. Too often that leads us to assuming confidence about things we really don’t understand. Being exposed as ignorant for spouting off on a subject outside our true expertise is a fast way to lose credibility on what we really do know.

We need to stay on topic and be clear about where we are truly expert and where we are just giving our own take.

3. Humility Works: I need to get a lot comfortable using the phrase “I don’t know”. Admitting some level of uncertainty or incomplete awareness disarms critics and actually increases the confidence of most of our followers who already know we aren’t perfect. Taking a curious posture and being eager to learn are far more valuable in the long run than being a “know-it-all”.

We need to commit ourselves to a lifetime of learning and be students more than teachers.

4. Sincere Apology: Even the best of intentions and careful communication may not prevent a misstep from time to time. Arrogant leaders double down on their statements, feeling victimized, and demand to be judged on their intentions. That only serves to alienate all but the most devoted followers.

Taking responsibility for our errors, acknowledging any harm we have caused, and committing to being better builds bridges. It may be taken advantage of on rare occasions, but more often it will earn an opportunity to communicate again more effectively.

Some of you don’t care. You figure if people don’t or won’t give you the benefit of the doubt you don’t need their support. You’re tired of being so “politically correct”. You value boldness and authenticity and refuse to be so careful all the time. You want the freedom to say things the way you want to say them.

That’s an option. It will inevitably cost you the chance to be heard by significant numbers of people who might be really interested in joining you; but you can rest in your confidence that your way is always right and anything else is compromise. There are a surprising number of people who will rally to that kind of leader.

As for me; I’ll be over here trying to figure out how to share my message in ways where my delivery won’t get in the way of what I’m really trying to say.
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Leadership
Do you remember Trivial Pursuit?

Family night in the 1980’s frequently involved moving our coloured “pies” around the board answering general knowledge and pop culture questions to earn what my dad always called “wedgies”. At our house winning Trivial Pursuit was worth major bragging rights.

The game was so popular that there were stories of people memorizing thousands of answers from the boxes full of cards. Those cards were ultimate authority, even when we sometimes disputed their accuracy.

I haven’t heard of anyone playing Trivial Pursuit in years but my kids have become masters of trivial information. Rarely a day goes by without some “fun fact” being shared from a popular meme page or Instagram feed. The sheer volume of information exposure we all experience daily is overwhelming.

And yet, we are still struggling with basic matters of kindness and ethics.

It’s no news flash to observe that more information hasn’t made us more wise.

I frame the situation this way:

Information + context and corroboration = Knowledge

Knowledge + compassion and application = Wisdom.

Of course Wisdom is the highest form and the one to which we aspire, but it would be a mistake to think we can focus there entirely. We need to gather Information from a variety of sources, scanning the horizons (and our newsfeeds) like a Searchlight to see what might be worthy of further consideration.

When something captures our interest we can try to understand the context around it and find corroborating evidence to shape and support our Knowledge. This is like a Spotlight drawing our attention and increasing our awareness of what we find.

Finally, when we want to bring change or influence we narrow the focus further like a Laser, seeking ways to make the Knowledge relevant and beneficial.

In every case the energy is essentially the same (light), the difference is the degree of focus.

(I’ve written on this approach previously in terms of using our individual and organizational energy; but now I see it equally helpful in handling the endless and demanding flow of content surrounding me constantly.)

There’s no magic formula for how much attention to give to each of Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom. Circumstances and seasons require different emphasis at different times. Why is helpful is to remind myself that my desire is for increasing Wisdom, and Information and Knowledge are important as part of that process.

Anyway, I’ve missed a pile of tweets while writing this so I’ve got to resume scrolling. Thanks for sticking with me this long.
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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.
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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.
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Leadership
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?
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Leadership
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.
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Leadership
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.
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Leadership
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?
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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.
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