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Leadership, Vision
When the time comes that you leave your current role what will you leave behind?

I’m fascinated by leadership transitions; the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast exploring the collapse of a one prominent megachurch and stopped in my tracks when one of the senior leaders described the reaction after the controversial founding pastor resigned: “It only took 2-3 hours for us to realize the only option was to shut it all down”. What a tragic outcome for something that really ought to have been bigger than a single individual.

In that case there are numerous factors that contributed to this ending, but it got me thinking about what remains in any organization after the leader departs for whatever reason.

I’ve always felt that if the organization fails after you leave it means you weren’t actually a very good leader, but I’m reconsidering.

Maybe it really depends what you’re trying to accomplish.

Sure, a cult of personality  around one charismatic persona is problematic, but there are some legacies worth pursuing other than an organization that grows and thrives in your absence.

Maybe your lasting legacy is something different. Like one or more of these:

1. Inspired and Equipped Individuals – Building an organization may not be your primary skill or interest if what you really care about is investing yourself in one or a few particular people. Seeing them find and follow their own sense of purpose may be a greater contribution than the legal entity that provided the opportunity and context for your mentoring to happen.

2. Meaningful Policy – You might be motivated by a cause and see an opportunity to develop, support, or advocate for policies that reach beyond one organization into networks, industries, or even law. Establishing a lasting best practice or a statute that advances or protects something you care about deeply may be profoundly satisfying.

3. Geographical Location – If you love a particular wetland, neighbourhood, or nation it may be more important to you that you’ve affected that space in a way that will last than having established an eternal organization. Whether its environmental protection, impactful zoning, or enhancing the appreciation of the beauty and meaning of a place; changing a location into something you’re proud of is a credible achievement.

4. Impacting an Industry – Many leaders I get to work with have a vision that extends beyond their own organization into the broader systems of their industry. Maybe what will resonate deeply in you years from now is not outdoing your “competition” but helping the entire network rise, grow, and develop. Setting standards, training programs, networks, or gatherings that bring out the best in the entire group could count for far more than a single entity.

5. Something More (or Less) – There are endless possibilities that could be your leadership legacy. Some are drawn to national and international impact, others have less grand visions. Some aspire to breadth, others depth, others to things that don’t even fit that dichotomy at all. You may be drawn to the expression of something profoundly personal or to dramatic, strategic, epic challenges.

The point is; try to figure out what you want your legacy to be, what you’re called to, what will give the greatest meaning and satisfaction to your work; and pursue those things. There’s a pretty good chance they’ll change over the years so check in with yourself once in a while to see if you’re still on the right track.

I am grateful for those leaders who are gifted and committed to building healthy organizations that are ready to thrive after they move on. But I have a growing appreciation for the reality that there are other ways to succeed as a leader. The failure comes when we misunderstand or never explore what we really care about.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Please comment with your strongest sense of the legacy you’re pursuing. And if I can help you figure out what it is, or how to align your efforts with it, let’s talk.

Leadership, Resources
Watch this post as a video.

Grinding or sprinting, there’s nothing in between.

For so many leaders, and the people we serve, right now there is deep fatigue. It shows up in many ways that make leading more difficult now than it was in the early days of the pandemic. The end may be coming into sight, but there is still a significant distance to travel and many challenges along the way.

Many people have found a way to keep moving forward despite all the difficulties. Like soldiers on a long march or cyclists in the midst of a several hour ride we have found a manageable pace and we seem to be able to just keep grinding along accomplishing the bare essentials but with little capacity for anything more. It’s not much fun, but we can get through it.

In the fascinating (at least to me) 2018 book Endure, Alex Hutchinson explores the science of human performance. Following studies and stories to every extreme of the planet and into the laboratories and elite athletic competitions he builds our understanding of the limits of endurance that may not be what we expect.

One intriguing reality is that even at the end of the hardest marathon race many athletes find some strength to sprint to the finish line, even if they collapse immediately afterward. It might be assumed that this burst of energy would be better spent running a little faster over the entire 42.2 kilometres rather than a burst in the final 100 metres, but the elite runners would almost all swear they could not have done it. They didn’t have a faster gear to use until the very end.

We are seeing in ourselves, and in many of the people we lead something a little bit similar. 

In typical years we can manage our energy with varying amounts of effort. We can seamlessly shift from a comfortable, sustainable pace to something just a little more intense for a limited time to accomplish a particular goal and then ease off a little. We usually have all kinds of range between just getting by and going full out. But that’s not the case right now.

Many, maybe even a majority of our people have lost all the middle gears.

We still have a desperate crisis response we can access if needed, but other than those bursts the only other option is just grinding. Every change, request, or new initiative has to either fit into our fatigued but enduring base level or it becomes a crisis.
If we’re not getting the response we want from people; whether they are overreacting or being disappointingly passive; it may very well be that they simply don’t have any other gears right now.

So what can we do? There’s still so much to do and in the interest of “never wasting a crisis” we want to work on some key opportunities that are hard to prioritize in normal times. How can we make progress when there’s so little capacity available?

1. Compassion First: Actually caring for our people beyond their productivity counts for a lot. That doesn’t mean ignoring problems, but it does mean carefully considering what additional expectations to put on people who are already under great stress. I’ve advised a number of charity leaders who were requesting training sessions for their teams to start with something like our Stress and Self-Care webinar as a demonstration of care for people before bringing on more results focussed sessions.

2. Avoid Announcements: Consider the likelihood that your people don’t really want to hear from you right now. Throughout the pandemic we’ve been inundated, and stressed out, with large scale announcements from politicians, health leaders, school officials, and other types of talking heads giving us updates on ever shifting realities and restrictions. We’ve watched, read, and listened to so many new initiatives and programs that have all been delivered with attempts at gravitas and authority. My guess is that your team are tuning out your all hands Zoom sessions and barely skimming your update emails. If you want to connect with people you need to work on a smaller scale. Deliver information and opportunities through line managers and working groups. Focus on humanity rather than authority.

3. Train ’em and Treat ’em: This is true in all times, but particularly now. Team members don’t all need, or respond to, the same things in the same ways. So wise leaders will provide both celebratory/supportive leadership and tools/training. Discerning what is best for your particular people at any particular time is absolutely more art than science, but over reliance on either approach will not be effective in the long run.

4. Opt-In Opportunities: We can’t confidently know which of our people have capacity or interest to engage in strategic opportunities all the time. Some are eager to help figure out what emerging from COVID will mean for our people, programs, properties, and planning. Others may be eager to hear that leadership has a handle on the situation but have nothing to offer in support of the process. Offering a range of possibilities, of various duration and intensity, that those who are interested and able can choose to participate in may be more timely than ever. It’s one way to find out who is able to engage and make use of what is available to the cause. Start with a couple simple invitations to brief, highly focussed working sessions and see what happens. It might unlock a couple gears that have been missing for a while.

None of this is easy. Leaders are just as vulnerable to missing gears as everyone else. If you feel like you just don’t have anything more to give it is understandable. Maybe we can help.

More than 13 months into a global pandemic, and with at least several months to come even before the medical situation clears to the point that the massive economic, social, educational, and stress-related effects can begin to be properly addressed, many leaders are finding their long acquired bag of leadership tricks is rather empty.

We don’t have the energy to figure out creative ways to continue addressing what are essentially the same issues, many of which are far beyond our control.

We long ago used up our most reliable tactics and favourite approaches to raise motivation and compliance from our people; and we may be exhausted ourselves.

These are emotional times for everyone and leaders are not always comfortable expressing emotion as part of our leadership. That may be because we are not very well in tune with our own emotions. It may be because we have accepted a myth that leadership is a stoic exercise where feelings are a sign of unwelcome weakness. Or it may be because we have seen too many poor and suspect examples of leaders misusing emotion in ways that erode trust and credibility.

So, what is the place of expressing emotion in leadership?

I’m not a psychologist, just an active observer and advisor of leadership for many years, but I think there are some simple practical ways to have emotion work for us  and for the good of our organizations, causes, and people.

First we have to work within ourselves.

1. Become skilled in recognizing your own emotions. 
Most effective leaders have some innate ability to read and affect the emotions of others (for good or otherwise). It’s a necessary part of holding influence. But many are not nearly as developed at understanding our own feelings and motivations. Self-awareness is something that can be learned and improved with some degree of intent and the assistance of therapists, counsellors, medical professionals, clergy, mentors, or even intuitive friends. So much of what we see as leadership failure can be attributed to leaders who didn’t recognize what was happening inside their own heads and hearts. Becoming adept at knowing our full range of emotion and expressing them in safer contexts before going public is far better than releasing a rush that we ourselves don’t grasp.

2. Deal with underlying issues of credibility.
Emotion provokes emotion, but we can’t always control what the responsive emotion will be. If we are seen as sincere and authentic there is  good chance that our expression of emotion will be met with compassion or a mirroring of what we reveal. If we are not trusted or are perceived as manipulative the response will reflect it. The many examples of public figures offering tearful apologies that are then dissected by suspicious critics are very telling. While it is reality that there are almost always some people who don’t like or trust us, wise leaders are continually seeking to address areas where they have left room to be misunderstood in their character or competence; and they acknowledge those issues early and honestly whenever possible.

3. Face your insecurities.
Expressing sincere emotion is inherently vulnerable and it involves a level of risk. For many leaders, especially those who aren’t experienced or comfortable with showing their feelings, it can trigger all the sources of insecurity we prefer to keep stashed away. The sense of inadequacy, imposter syndrome, or exposure can undermine all our strengths and best intentions. Too many leaders fail when insecurity controls their direction instead of the confidence that comes from a deeply rooted sense of identity. Catalyst offers a tool specifically on how insecurity affects leaders and what we can do about it. Contact us and ask about the Kryptonite workshop.

Then we can show our emotions impactfully.

1. Name the emotion we are expressing.
Say “I am angry”, “I am deeply concerned”, “I am sorry”, “I am heartbroken”. Don’t leave people having to interpret what you are showing. It is too easy for any of us to project our own feelings when we aren’t sure what others are experiencing. Being clear about what this is, and what it isn’t makes it much easier for others to join us with empathy and compassion that can help empower the message we are trying to communicate.

2. Frame the feelings.
Just telling people how we feel without explaining why is dangerous. Context is essential. People will want to understand what provokes our emotion and how it impacts them before they can determine how to best respond. Channel the situation toward the response you want by providing specific examples of what is affecting you and what you are planning to do about it. Give people an outlet to direct their responses.

3. Don’t play games.
Many leaders have the potential to manipulate people. Ethical leaders don’t do it. Expressing emotion can be self-serving, insecure, cynical, and abusive. The difference between persuasion and manipulation may be somewhat subtle but the consequences for being exposed after crossing the line make it well worth keeping your distance. It may work in the short term, but its a violation of your people and often comes back to bite you, as it should.

And finally, we have to act.

Emotion is a valid part of leadership. It drives motivation, informs aspects of decision making, and helps engage and connect with people. But it is not enough. Expressing emotion that doesn’t translate into meaningful action is a failure of leadership. It undermines trust and credibility, weakens authority, and creates suspicion about all future emotion.

Hypocritical leaders use the rush of emotion to hide their inadequacy or to avoid accountability. This feeds cynicism that makes leadership, and life, harder for all of us.

In times of extended stress we need leaders who can demonstrate their humanity. Showing emotion with discernment and sincerity is a natural response and an effective approach to the challenges we face. Doing the work to develop healthy self-awareness and communicating with clarity will serve all of us, and everyone we serve as leaders, very well.

How do you know when and how to best express your emotions as a leader?

*Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels*

Leadership, Resources
What are your values costing you?

In recent weeks I’ve been in conversation with several charity leaders who are facing some difficult situations with no clear way forward. Competing priorities, complex problems, and COVID fatigued people conspire against familiar solutions. It’s just hard.

So where do we start?

There are several options, but when facing the greatest leadership challenges the wisest leaders look to values.

As much as poorly thought out and poorly articulated values are deserving of the derision they almost always receive from team members; properly conceived values are of great use to an organization in tough times.

(I recommend Patrick Lencioni’s approach to understanding and identifying 4 Types of Values.)

The thing we too often forget is that the word values implies that these things come at a cost. Organizational values are usually convictions that will help you succeed, but they prove themselves when you are willing to sacrifice some success, expense, or comfort to embody them. True values aren’t honoured because they “work”, but because we prioritize them over alternatives that might have some advantages, particularly in the short term.

If you value transparency you will share your failures openly and explicitly.

If you value efficiency you will release employees who can’t keep up.

If you value community you will slow decision making until everyone has participated.

If you value excellence you will not accept shortcuts even when they save time and money.

If you value innovation you will budget for repeated failed attempts.

Under the pressures we are facing this year there are many temptations to address problems in ways that prioritize something different than the values we promote. When we take those options we reveal that we aren’t truly committed to the cost of our values. We also set a precedent for future compromises.

We often need to hold our values in tension. They don’t always point explicitly to a single golden path forward. Resolving those tensions is part of the work of leadership, particularly in times like these. But it is only those among us who do that hard work, demonstrating real willingness to live out our values, that will see ourselves and our organizations emerge from troubles with a deep sense of integrity intact.

Here are some practical tips on committing to values that will serve you well.

And if I can help you resolve the tensions let’s set up a conversation.

Leadership, Resources
Are you noticing that your people are a little on edge?

Did a relatively innocuous error provoke a major reaction?

Are your own energy and emotional fluctuations surprising you these days?

Welcome to the club, it’s a big one.

More than a year into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic we are all tired. We are all drained. We are all vulnerable. We are all frayed around the edges. Even if we don’t see it.

And many leaders and organizations have had some unexpected eruptions of frustration and tension these last few weeks.

We shouldn’t be surprised. the global stress of a pandemic is like a heavy blanket piled on top of the typical challenges we experience. Fears of the physical, economic, social, and mental health impacts of COVID only escalate the regular experiences of life’s difficulties. Things are really hard.

The thing is, many of us aren’t aware of how fragile we, and our colleagues, really are right now. We’ve gotten so familiar with the stress that we have almost forgotten how it is affecting us. It’s hard to see how little margin we have left.

On top of that, the precautions we’ve taken for the last year have eliminated many of the informal interactions that usually maintain trust and often defuse tension. No casual chats in the office, no laughs during a staff retreat, no jokes, high fives, or supportive check ins in the ways we’ve relied n them in the past. Despite the old saying, familiarity usually doesn’t breed contempt; but distance absolutely leaves space for doubt, misunderstanding, and suspicion.

The end may be in sight. In many places we are seeing vaccination rates going up (even as a dangerous third wave of infection is growing). It seems more possible than ever that 4-5 months from now we will be resuming something much more like life as it was pre-COVID.

Leaders are champing at the bit to start preparing for that emergence. We are eager to put plans in place, make adjustments, and get moving on all the many old and new initiatives that will mark whatever the new normal becomes. Our followers are looking to us for both assurance that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer and that we will be ready when we get there.

But many people have no capacity to invest in that future right now and may even push back against plans that they will eventually happily support. Anything that feels like change, requires effort, or needs creativity can seem like too much when people are worn down and trust is (understandably) diminished. It’s not you, it’s just reality right now.

So what can we do?

As is so often the case, it’s back to basics. 

Overcommunicate: Tired people don’t receive or retain information easily. Get really clear on every message you want to communicate. say it simply and openly. Say it often. Say it again, in as many ways as you can, and then say it again and again.

Invest in Your Team: No matter how hard you’ve worked on ensuring that your people know you care about them, assume trust is weaker than you think. You probably need to demonstrate compassion and support before you introduce the next initiative or effort. Consider something like our Self-Care and Stress Strategies webinar as a way of showing your team that you see their reality. Relationships are the key to organizational culture and it is culture, far more than strategy or execution, that will determine how you come out of this.

Anticipate Delays: Whatever happens in the next several months, none of us will have predicted it perfectly. There are likely to be more than the usual surprises and challenges even after the pandemic isn’t the dominant narrative. Set targets with as much flexibility and discernment as possible and prepare for a wider range of outcomes. Better to be surprised by remarkable success than frustrated with falling short.

Protect Yourself: Parents are familiar with the experience of elementary school kids coming home and being terrors after angelic behaviour all day at school. Some of us have been holding it together so hard for so long that a crash is looming. That’s true for everyone, but possibly even moreso for leaders who may not have allowed ourselves to acknowledge or deal with our own struggles of the last year. Know your vulnerabilities, find some safe people to be honest with, and find the better ways to expose and process your own difficulties.

Be Bold: Yes, we need to be realistic about the depth and degree of fatigue and loss we are all experiencing. We also need to step into the responsibilities of leadership with all the skills, character, and courage we possess. Your organization and the people you serve need the best you and your team can muster to guide the way into what’s next. It is true that “fatigue makes cowards of the best of us”, but we can find strength, wisdom, and hope to envision possibilities worth the best we can bring to our work.

Leader, you are not alone. 

If Catalyst can provide a team building or leadership development session for your team please contact us. And if what you really need is someone who can hear your heart, as messy as it may be, and offer some compassionate encouragement to find the way forward don’t hesitate to reach out to me directly (chris at It will be my privilege to hold space with you and help you find the next steps.

Leadership, Resources
More than 2/3rds of the leaders I’m going to be working with most closely over the next year have started their current leadership role in the last eight months; during a global pandemic.

On Carey Nieuwhof’s podcast, prominent search consultant and author William Vanderbloemen predicted that 2021 will be a year of extremely high turnover. I think its already underway. A surprising number of charities have transitioned their first chair leader (Executive Director, CEO, Lead Pastor, Czarina?) in the midst of this year of dramatic uncertainty.

What’s it like to come into the top role of an organization experiencing phenomenal stress, constant dramatic change, and with strict limitations on the ability to be together with your new team?

It’s hard.

All the well established First 90 Days strategies have to be approached in completely different ways, if they work at all.

Building trust with people who are living in fear and turmoil (in both the global sense and for the wellbeing of their immediate loved ones) when you can’t have team building events, staff retreats, or even casual time hanging out at lunch or over a coffee is difficult.

3-5 Year Strategic Plans have been largely abandoned and the sense of impending doom from the lasting economic impacts of COVID-19 has made budgeting feel like reading tea leaves.

Programming models are in constant flux and we don’t really know when anything resembling stability will return or what it will look like if it does.

So what can a new leader do to establish credibility and give direction?

Here are three very practical things newly arrived leaders can do that will help them succeed.

1. Prioritise Relationships: As obvious as this may seem, the more dependent we are becoming on digital dynamics the more essential it is that we feel connected. Invest time in getting to know the people at every level of your organization as much as you can. Risking a little vulnerability and learning to laugh together will have significant lasting impact for everything you will want to do for as long as you stay in that role. People first.

2. Push Pause: Many organizations are running way faster than a sustainable pace and have been for most of a year. People are drained. Without intentionally interrupting the way things are going you may well be grinding toward a dangerous decline. No one wants to close programs when people are in great need, but finding ways to ease off or even shut down for a bit may be crucial to lasting impact. New leaders often want to rush into things to make their mark. Don’t. Taking your time and giving space for your team to breathe a little is responsible leadership.

3. Play Your Cards: There are questions you can ask as a recent arrival that you won’t be able to after you’ve been there for a couple years. There are decisions you can make in a time of crisis that won’t fly when things are more stable. The New Kid card and the Crisis card allow you to understand and expose things that are often avoided and have people accept the changes you need to make even if they are costly. Don’t make change for change’s sake to try to prove to the staff or board that you deserve your new job; but when you are convinced that something needs to be done, do it decisively.

There is almost always some level of insecurity or imposter syndrome that comes with being the new leader. These circumstances amplify that for many of us. And yet the need for effective leadership may be higher now than ever. This is a time for leaders to demonstrate wisdom and courage regardless of how long they’ve held their role.

If you’re trying to figure out leading in a new role this year one of the best things you can do is intentionally build a small group of advisors who can help you process your situation and decisions, and explore who you are in the midst of it. If you’re not sure who to ask to support you, get in touch with me. I may be able to help.

Catalyst is pleased to offer a fully funded opportunity for charity leaders and teams to receive leadership consulting workshops to help overcome the challenges of 2020. Capacity is limited. See details below and contact us to see what we can do together.

Click on this link for pdf and links:
Leadership Consulting Opportunity for Canadian Charities Fall 2020

Leading a charity is never easy, but this year’s unexpected challenges have multiplied the difficulty while simultaneously taking away some of the capacity needed to address it all. 

Catalyst Foundation ( is pleased to offer a selection of consulting services to charity leaders at no charge for the remainder of 2020. 

The generosity of our founders to support the cost of this opportunity is much appreciated.

Chris Wignall (Executive Director) is a respected consultant and trainer with more than 20 years of leadership in the charitable sector. He has been exclusively focused on the health of leaders and organizations through Catalyst since 2008. His combination of insight, compassion, practicality, and humour provide leaders with a rare advisor who understands the demands they face and is able to give guidance that makes an actual difference.

Programs Offered:

  1. The REACTION Dashboard: A practical tool leaders and teams use to understand, assess, and improve their organizational culture. This memorable and repeatable approach will guide you to address culture warning lights; but also to tap into the remarkable leverage of strategic celebration. (90-120 minutes)
  2. Self-Care and Stress Strategies: Timely, practical approach to help develop healthy habits, identify your own stress strategies, and improve wellbeing. A great way to demonstrate your care for your team. (45-90 minutes)
  3. The Six Hats of a Board Member: Many board members don’t really understand the various roles they play. The resulting confusion creates chaos and hurts the organization. This unique, interactive approach helps your board with clarity and focus. (60-90 minutes)
  4. Leader’s Kryptonite – Insecurity & Identity: Nothing undermines leaders quite like insecurity does. This engaging workshop is a reflective and applicable approach to managing insecurity and leading out of a rooted identity. (90-120 minutes)
  5. Custom Sessions: Your leadership needs may not align perfectly with any of the above programs. Chris has the experience and insight to work with you to create a session specifically for your team. Contact him to explore the ways we can help.

**All of these programs can be delivered remotely for the safety and convenience of everyone involved if preferred.**

There is limited capacity for this opportunity. If you are interested in discussing whether it might be a fit for your organization please contact

Bonus: Catalyst is able to offer a free copy of The REACTION Dashboard book to up to 20 charity leaders who would like to receive one regardless of their involvement in this opportunity. 

Email with Subject Line: REACTION Offer 2020 and your mailing address to request your copy.


Leadership, Resources
My cynicism got the better of me.

A few weeks ago, when this COVID-19 pandemic was beginning I had multiple conversations in which I was asked how leaders could improve organizational culture in this time of distant work and high stress. I said there wasn’t much hope.

I was wrong.

In the time since those conversations I have seen leaders demonstrate care and compassion for their teams. I’ve seen them display sincere vulnerability in appropriate ways. I’ve seen them rally their teams around their mission and take on immense challenges, often with remarkable success. 

I’ve seen cultures strengthened significantly.

It turns out (as people wiser than myself already knew), that times of stress don’t only reveal the cracks in organizational health; they also provide a powerful opportunity to address some of those issues. There is great opportunity in crisis for those who are able to engage it well.

Of course this shouldn’t be a surprise. Some moments are high leverage, and this is certainly one of them. Physical separation from our teams doesn’t prevent us from deepening our connections and affirming our shared commitments. In some cases the change of situation becomes an excellent opportunity to make impactful adjustments.

So, how can leaders improve their culture in the midst of great challenges?

1. Be Human: Sudden adjustment to working from home and worrying about the wellbeing of our loved ones gives us a glimpse into life beyond work for our colleagues. Take time to ask more questions about how people are doing. Be compassionate about the limitations and difficulties of home schooling, cabin fever, constant stress, and loneliness. Talk about your own challenges in a way that doesn’t always set you up as the ideal. Emphasize relationship in the ways that mean the most to your people.

2. Focus on Purpose, not Productivity: We all talk about impact measures and the importance of mission. Now is a time to lean in to that aggressively. People are working odd hours, without familiar settings and resources, and with more distractions than ever. Don’t add to the pressure by having unrealistic expectations. Instead have open conversations about the challenges we face and how we can have the greatest effect for our mission under the circumstances. We need to count results, not activity; and we need to give our people the opportunity to shape their work with that in mind.

3. Celebrate!: For most of us the desperate urgency of the first days of the pandemic is over. Life is turning into a grind, with no end in sight. We are longing for normalcy that may yet be far off. We’ve abandoned most of our goals both professionally and personally, and so many of the typical highlights of our lives aren’t happening. We need celebrations! We need to have our successes recognized and our accomplishments acknowledged. We need the moments of joy to punctuate our days. We need good news stories, victories, and opportunities to cheer one another on. More than ever, we need leaders who are attuned to the power of celebration and committed to making it happen.

I’m not proud of being wrong, but I’m really glad I was. 

This is absolutely an opportunity for organizations to become healthier in ways that will long outlast the current situation. We’d love to help you do that.

Check out The REACTION Dashboard for a practical guide to understanding, assessing, and improving organizational culture in any circumstance.

Leadership, Uncategorized
How do we prepare our organizations for what comes after the pandemic?

Every organization has some things that are untouchable. A time of sudden instability may be exactly the opportunity to take a closer look at whether those things are still serving your mission well. As Winston Churchill said: “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.

My last post raised three critical things leaders need to do to handle the harder decisions that are coming very soon. But now I want to suggest two unusual activities that may be valuable in preparing you for the longer term: Elephant Hunting and Shooting Sacred Cows.

(It may be unnecessary but I want to be clear that I am not in favour of trophy hunting and I mean no disrespect to those who do consider cows sacred. I’m just using the vernacular.)

Elephant Hunting: The elephant in the room in such a common trope it seems absurd; but that’s because it really is. The reality that mature, professional, decent people can have unspoken solidarity to never mention or deal with a looming issue doesn’t make sense. But it is all too often true.

Several years ago I took the picture on this post in the offices of Muskoka Woods. I absolutely loved coming across an eight foot high stuffed animal in their lobby. It perfectly captures the mindset that inhabits teams that will not risk rocking the boat by calling out what is known by all but never addressed. We carefully step around the obstacle, pretending it isn’t there, until it basically becomes invisible even as it remains in the way.

In this time when so much is uncertain and we are continually adapting to reality we didn’t anticipate it may be just the chance to point at the elephant and say “Let’s do something about this!”

Of course there is a chance it will backfire, but leaders with integrity are more likely to appreciate someone having the nerve, or accumulated frustration, to state the obvious. At a time when things are so difficult we need to get these long overdue issues out of the way. All it takes is one moment of boldness to expose the elephant. What happens next will reveal a great deal about the culture of your organization.

Shooting Sacred Cows: While we actively avoid acknowledging elephants, we sometimes spend way too much time, energy, and resource on sacred cows. These are the things (programs, facilities, traditions, people, etc.) that have been a part of what we do for so long that we can’t imagine getting on without them, even if we suspect or know they are no longer effective.

You can usually recognize a sacred cow by the way they are treasured in unassailable esteem and never held up to scrutiny. 

Times of transition, whether its new leaders coming on board, relocation, financial turmoil, or something like a pandemic, often expose the way these things have become undeservingly unquestioned. The new person or situation may cause us to ask, “Is this really helping us to accomplish our purpose?”

As so many organizations try to make changes to adapt to the financial difficulties ahead and the impossibility of business as usual it is no longer an option for wise leaders to protect what no longer serves. It is time to put the nonproductive cows out to pasture, if not throw them on the barbecue. As with elephants, it takes one person with the courage to ask the direct question to free up the group for needed consideration.

There are no guarantees in leadership. That is more clear than ever these days. Being the one who points out the elephant or challenges the value of the cow may be a career limiting move. Some leaders and organizations aren’t willing or able to even consider that these things are actually problems that drag against the good you are trying to do. That sucks, but it is occasionally the case.

But I have a strong suspicion that those leaders who step into that risk and respectfully yet directly challenge the status quo are the ones who will help their organizations have the greatest chance of emerging from COVID-19 intact and better positioned to increase their impact. 

Are you one of those leaders?

Catalyst can help you engage in dealing with obstructive elephants and outdated cows.
Contact us so we can take them on together.

I have been very impressed by most of the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic by charity leaders.

With the exception of some dangerously ignorant religious leaders who insist on still gathering large groups for worship services, the sector has taken the risks seriously and adapted quite quickly to the temporary reality we are all facing. Many are caring for their communities in creative ways that allow them to continue providing some services without putting staff, volunteers, or guests at unnecessary risk. Others have made difficult decisions quickly to protect the financial stability of their organizations.

In my last post I made some recommendations for moving from the urgent crisis response stage to something more strategic and lasting. That seems well underway now. 

But as Winston Churchill said:

Leaders who have thrived on the adrenaline of the initial response to the crisis may be fatigued and suffering a bit of a crash from all that energy. And yet; the decisions made in the next few weeks are crucial.

Most leaders are at their best in times of growth. We are drawn to high potential and new opportunities for impact. Scaling down, reducing budgets, and taking the responsibility for decisions that will be very hard for others to accept isn’t something that many find inspiring or appealing. The best selling books and high profile conferences don’t say much about how to do this stuff. But it will be the role of many leaders in the months to come.

Some experts estimate that as many as half of Canadian charities may face permanent closure by the end of this year. Others are forecasting that a dramatic drop in donation revenue will hit hardest in early 2021 and last for a year or more from then. 

A lot of good organizations may not survive.

So what can we do to better our chances?

1. Mission First: As much as you, and many of your donors, care about the wellbeing of your employees, the real reason for your organization to exist is what you provide to the needs of the world. Programs, approaches, and facilities may have to be closed. Organizations that are very clear on what their real purpose is, and are able to adapt their model of addressing it, will be most likely to overcome.  Those that can’t communicate their mission or seem only interested in keeping the doors open for their own sake will face harsher difficulties. Clarity around priorities is non-negotiable.

2. Back To Basics: The elaborate systems we have built in brighter times may prove to be our undoing now. This is the time to reconsider everything about our approach and reduce what we can to the real essentials. Cutting the right costs means seeking the most efficient ways to work and communicate. Acquiring new donors is going to be much more difficult than strengthening relationships with those we already have. Many leaders have fond memories of leading scrappy, entrepreneurial, adaptable organizations. That kind of thinking will serve well.

3. Draw Lines In The Sand: There are far too few examples of charities that have ended in dignified ways. Determine now the criteria for layoffs, program closures, and the complete shut down of the organization. Engage the board and wise stakeholders in setting the limits beyond which you will not go. Having explicit financial, impact, and situational triggers for the hardest decisions you may ever make in leadership won’t make it easier to end something that has been good, but it will allow you to do so as well as possible. Instead of desperate scrambling for ways to avoid the inevitable, you will be able to focus on ending with compassion and gratitude for what has been done.

Of course there are some points for optimism. Some organizations will find this to be their most productive season in years. Some will fit the needs and donor interests of this moment. Some leaders will find wonderfully creative ways to remake their charities that will serve for years to come. I expect to see new partnerships, mergers, and innovations emerge that will inspire a generation.

These are times for leaders to gather the very best wisdom available, to take unflinching looks at uncomfortable realities, and to have the strength to be proactive about the path ahead. Who among us will rise to leading well in this season?