Your address will show here +12 34 56 78

Humble is hard.

As much as humility is an admired trait (for most of us at least), the process of becoming humble is rarely pleasant. It usually comes at significant cost to our ego, if not our reputation.

Leaders today live in a tension between understanding that humility is the path to greatest organizational success and a culture that is increasingly geared to self-promotion. We know that everything we do is ultimately reliant on many others, but we also have to recognize our own contributions. With so much emphasis on the individual; empowered by social media, profiles and awards, and seeing those who champion their own achievements rising around us, it can be difficult to know how to represent ourselves honestly.

For many years I was one who ascribed to the idea that doing good work quietly would always be seen by those who really matter. I convinced myself that any promotion of my accomplishments was inappropriate and selfish. I deflected compliments and diminished my abilities as nothing special. I thought that was humility.

I was wrong.

It’s taken me years to be able to confidently and openly express the things I do well and have achieved. (Maybe it’s a Canadian thing).

I was intimidated by, and jealous of, people who posted their awards or called attention to their successes. It looked like bragging. It was beneath me.

Wrong again.

I am learning, so very slowly, that humility is not demonstrated by denying my gifts. It is in holding them loosely and being eager to celebrate the gifts of others. Pretending that I am not proud of the results of my hard work is false humility, waiting for others to prop me up with praise. It is no less insecure than the people who constantly trumpet themselves for affirmation. Demeaning myself isn’t humble it’s harmful.

So what are humble leaders really like?

-They talk more about team than about self.
-They take more responsibility for failures than successes.
-They understand their strengths and use them confidently.
-They understand their weaknesses and show them openly.
-They encourage others to surpass their own achievements.
-They accept praise and thanks with gratitude.
-They intentionally develop others, and themselves.
-They have an accurate assessment of their own abilities and contributions.
-Their identity is not dependent on their performance.
-They commit themselves to the cause, not their personal brand.
-They admit mistakes and ask forgiveness.
-They earn respect rather than demand loyalty.
-They are teachable and accept both affirming and critical feedback.
-They celebrate achievements eagerly and give credit where it is due.
-They inspire humility in others.

Obviously there are far more…

What does humble leadership look like to you?

Leadership, Resources, Vision
One of the growth areas for Catalyst in the last few years is facilitating Strategic Planning sessions. It’s work I love but I confess I’ve had a hard time figuring out the best approach. Most of what I’ve seen and tried has left me feeling unsatisfied, like there’s something missing that keeps it from approaching the kind of impact we aim for.

The problem for me is that so much strategic planning is terrible. Whether its brainstorming sessions with no connection to reality, or droning meetings lost in detail, it seems like much of what passes for strategic planning is nearly useless if not counterproductive. 

There has to be a better way.

Pat of the problem is with our basic understanding of strategy. We treat it as something static that gives us a false sense of control. Strategy lies.

But what I’m seeing over and over in guiding charities, churches, schools, and businesses through strategy sessions is that the bigger issue is that we try to treat Strategy as a separate thing from Execution and Culture. 

It’s fine to consider each of these components of a healthy and effective organization with some distinction, but they are inextricably entwined. There is no brilliant Strategy that can work without focussed Execution and supported by a thriving Culture. Our attempts to solve Culture and Execution issues by improving or innovating Strategy are doomed to frustration.

So change the approach.

By incorporating Strategy, Execution, and Culture all into the strategic planning process we do a much better job of identifying the real issues and opportunities. We show respect for the participants who often know that strategy isn’t the problem. We recognize that our organizations are integrated systems, not simplistic machines. And, perhaps most importantly, we leverage the effects of all three components to increase engagement, improve outcomes, and align every form of energy towards a brighter future – which is what we were hoping for to begin with.

There are lots of ways to plan a strategic planning process that will draw on Strategy, Execution, and Culture. My approach is always adjusting to accommodate new insights and tools to better serve the uniqueness of each situation. What is clear is that any approach that fails to intentionally address all of these is dangerously incomplete and inadequate for the realities of leadership today.

If you’re anticipating doing some strategic planning this year I’d love to hear how you’re designing the process to get results that are useful and effective. And if Catalyst can help contact me.

For an introduction to the Strategy/Execution/Culture approach to leadership read the last chapter of The REACTION Dashboard.

Leadership, Resources, Uncategorized

Being the new kid is difficult.

Being the new leader is too. 

For anyone starting a new leadership role or joining a new organization in a leadership capacity there are a mix of emotions:

Excitement – This is awesome! Can’t wait to get started! So amazing that I get paid to do this!
Insecurity – Can I handle everything this requires? What do I need to do to earn trust and build credibility? Will they like me?
Pride – I’ve worked hard for this. This is the chance I’ve been waiting for. Started from the bottom now we here! 🙂
Pragmatism – Where do I park? Which is my workspace? What details do I need to take care of so I can get on with the job?
– Hope – We are going to do some great things! I can imagine something beautiful from this! The future is bright!
– Doubt – What did they not tell me about what’s really going on here? Do I have the time/team/resources to succeed?

Whatever you may be feeling as you begin, this is a key time. What you do in the first few weeks and months of a new role has leverage for your entire tenure.

Here are a few things I’ve seen leaders do that set the right tone and lead to excellent results:

1. Prioritise. Find out what are the most important and most urgent things your supervisor/board expects you to accomplish. Early expectations can be unrealistic, but they are also the basis for your initial credibility as leader. Get as much clarity on these expectations as you possibly can and determine to act on them.
2. Plan. Don’t just wing it. Even if you’ve been able to rely on your instincts in previous situations that strength has the potential to undermine you now. I highly recommend the book The First 90 Days as a guide to establishing your first moves. It is deservedly the prime resource for this situation.
3. People. Building relationships is (almost) everything! Unless you have been given a definitive urgent change mandate nothing you do at the start will have greater positive long term results than getting to know your colleagues and letting them know you. Ask more questions. Commit to learning. Be relentlessly curious.
4. Patience. Leaders often think they need a couple “quick wins” to earn the confidence of the organization. That is partially true, but too often it is a reflection of insecurity more than reality. The wins you need may have more to do with connection than change; especially in a healthy organization.
5. Pray. (Or if you aren’t the praying sort: Pause). Take time regularly, more than usual, to connect with the deepest truths you believe and be reminded of what matters most to you. It’s tempting to be swept up in your new reality and lose touch with the core identity that is essential to your ultimate success.
6. Protegé. Build a list of experts and advisors who will take your calls. Even if your role has some assigned mentors you are wise to have interested outsiders who care enough about you to give honest insights. And make a point of reaching out to them sooner rather than later. It’s not a mistake to schedule a couple check-ins as soon as you can, even before what you will know what to ask them.
7. Persevere. Nearly all the leaders I advise quickly find some things in a new role that were not what they expected. Early challenges tend to be disproportionate as they are magnified by the stress of a new beginning. Dig in, trust your experience and strengths, and lean on the help that is available to you. It gets better.
8. Perspective. Take the long view whenever possible. As important as the first 90 days are, they are not everything. Your whole life and career are not likely to be determined by this season and the ultimate success of the organization probably isn’t either. Starting well is a significant advantage but there are many traps to be found by rushing to make things happen that aren’t going to matter much in a few years time.

If you are in a new leadership role I am rooting for you. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.

And as a bonus to those who read all the way through: I have 5 copies of my book The REACTION Dashboard to give for free to the first five leaders in new roles that ask for them. If having a healthy culture is something you care about this book can help you make that happen. Just contact me to request a copy.

Catalyst, Leadership, Resources

Are you looking forward to getting your organization moving again after the year end festivities?

Most charities work hard right up to the final day of the calendar year to maximize fundraising as donors give for an annual tax receipt. 

For many, the first weeks of a new year are a relatively less urgent time when there may be greater potential for investing in strategic priorities beyond the daily whirlwind of tasks and deadlines. It can be a time to refocus and reinvest as well as to recover.

This may be the best opportunity all year to take a closer look at your organizational culture and see what is worthy of celebrating and what needs to change for you to achieve your ambitions for 2020. Of course you should be considering and working on culture all the time; but it rarely reaches the top of the priority list when things are busy. It’s very important but by the time it becomes urgent it may be extremely difficult to fix it without serious damage.

So here are 7 Simple Questions you can ask alone, or with your team, to check in on the health of your organizational culture:

1. Do we all understand the Reason for our work well enough to state it briefly in our own words?

2. How are we being intentional about managing the seasonal ebbs and flows of Energy and developing the habits that fill us?

3. What are 3 things we are doing currently that are not in strong Alignment with our priorities and how are we fixing or eliminating those things?

4. Where is there a communication gap that is muddying the Clarity we need to have our greatest impact and who is responsible for closing that gap?

5. What Trust damaging behaviours have we tolerated for too long for fear of losing a high performer or just because we are uncomfortable with conflict?

6. Which potential or imminent Warning Lights are indicating dangers to the health of our organization?

7. What specific things are we doing this month to Celebrate our steps toward success that we want everyone involved in our organization to understand and/or replicate?

Taking even just 15 minutes to answer these questions, and then acting on the answers, could be exactly what you need to set your organization on course for a healthier and more effective year ahead.

For more practical insight into how leaders can understand, assess, and improve organizational culture check out or contact us for a free initial consultation.

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.



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, physicians, or clergy), 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 more 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.

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.

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

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

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

That has changed dramatically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have to delegate the capacity to fail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most leaders love strategy.

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

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

Of course it doesn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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