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What are you drawing your team’s attention to?

During lunch today I was watching the first episode of the Netflix documentary series The Playbook: A Coach’s Rules For Life. One scene stopped me mid-chew.

This episode is about NBA basketball coach Doc Rivers, a well respected veteran coach who is currently with the Philadelphia 76ers. In 2007 he was coaching the Boston Celtics.

At that time the marquee franchise had been struggling for several years but the addition of some excellent new players had brought new optimism, and ratcheted up the pressure on the relatively inexperienced head coach. In an effort to set the standard for performance he did something subtle but remarkable.

Doc had a spotlight installed in the practice gym, not to illuminate the many championship banners hanging on the walls, but to shine on the empty space at the end of the row. The place where the next banner would hang.

Most impressively, he didn’t announce it. He had the light shining constantly but didn’t mention it until a player noticed it. Then Doc explained that the team’s mission was to fulfill the responsibility of winning that next banner and extending the success of the storied Celtics.

Brilliant! (literally).

One of my favourite sessions with leaders is a discussion about how we allocate our energy. Using imagery of a Searchlight, a Spotlight, and a Laser we consider the different productive ways to focus. The searchlight scans the horizon for things that may be relevant. The spotlight is used to draw attention to something in particular we want ourselves and our teams to see clearly. The laser is the highly focussed activity we take to make things happen.

For that entire season, whenever the Celtics were in the gym they were silently, but powerfully, reminded of what they were setting out to accomplish. (And yes, they did win the title that season).

Where do you want your team to be giving their attention? How can you spotlight it?

When a cause is in sharp decline we would expect that it would grind down quietly as people give up, give in, or go away.

But that’s not how it happens.

More often than not it’s actually the opposite. Instead of quietly succumbing to demise we see organizations, movements, and positions grow more strident, more aggressive, and more convinced even as the end becomes inevitably near. Social media dramatically magnifies this tendency.

Why does it happen?

The Loudest Leave Last.

When a cause is exposed as misguided or success revealed to be too costly or highly unlikely the adherents who are only loosely aligned will quietly slip away, often without any comment. They are soon followed by those who are genuine in their support but have other commitments competing for their energy who prefer to apply themselves where the odds are more in their favour.

This is the inflection point. This is where leaders determine whether the end will come in dignified acquiescence to the reality or as a final fight to the death with no quarter asked or given.

If the latter path is chosen the demands for greater loyalty and more rabid commitment soon follow. The sense of persecution and of being united against a powerful opposition become oppressive to all but the truest believers. Soon all that remain are those who are so passionate, so determined, so sold out that there is no room for anything but absolute commitment. Anything less than everything is unconscionable and the slightest hesitation or capitulation is seen as betrayal.

There is something admirable in people who are willing to give themselves so fully to something they believe in. It speaks to something profound when we see them so devoted to something beyond themselves. But mostly it looks tragic to all but those inside.

Devotion brings out both the best and the worst in humanity, and perspective is often the way we determine which it is.

For those who find themselves among the faithful remnant to a cause there is a nobility in fighting to the bitter end. They become increasingly distinct from the surrounding culture, increasingly distrusting of outsiders, increasingly certain of their own righteousness. At some point there is no longer an option to exit.

As leaders we need to be intentional to avoid the ease of echo chambers that will remove any challenge to our perspectives. We need to be wary of the tendency to radicalize our cause for reasons of insecurity, ego, or power. The temptation is very real.

To be clear; there are things worth dying for. We won’t agree on exactly what they are, but they exist. I don’t meant to suggest that avoiding extremes is always admirable. At times it is more cowardice than wisdom. Commitment (to the right things) is a virtue.

What I am trying to do is to simply point out that just because voices are getting louder does not mean there is more life. More noise does not mean more vitality. It may be the final cries of a falling warrior.

The loudest leave last.

It finally happened.

At 48 years old I got glasses for the first time. Just for reading, and I can get by without them; but they sure help.

When I put on my reading glasses it is much easier for me to focus on the things I want to give my attention to. Without them it’s a strain to see what I need to see.

It occurs to me that leaders often have to strain at least a little to see the things that are most important. One of the lessons from the many uncertainties of 2020 is that much of what we focus on; strategic planning, long range forecasting, strong execution systems; is vulnerable to circumstances beyond our control. 

I believe in the high importance of Strategy and Execution but dynamic times reveal that Culture matters more. Healthy organizational cultures are able to adapt more effectively to even prolonged periods of constant change that make carefully crafted strategic plans and high performance systems irrelevant.

Wise leaders will take that lesson and choose to focus on intentionally developing healthy Culture.

In a similar way, our proficient Skills and hard-won Effort have been revealed to be more dependent on situations and circumstances than we realized. It’s a deeply rooted sense of Identity that enables leaders to manage intense complexity and uncertainty and come out of it intact. 

Our leadership eyes are finely tuned to see things like Strategy, Execution, Skills, and Effort; but not so good at focusing in on Culture and Identity. Maybe we need a set of lenses to help us see and pay attention to these often overlooked areas.

If this rings true for you like it does for me maybe we can help. Contact me to set up a clarifying conversation about how to see Culture and Identity more clearly, and pick up a copy of The REACTION Dashboard for a practical tool that you can use on an ongoing basis.

2021 is a good year to improve our focus on the right things.

Feeling isolated as a leader?

Been called a micromanager?

Have a sense that the weight of the whole organization is on your shoulders?

I’m willing to bet you have an issue trusting your team.

Trust is a big topic and there are lots of excellent resources that explore the intricacies of why it is important and how to establish, maintain, and rebuild trust. (It’s even one of the 5 Elements of Healthy Culture in my book). But you probably don’t need a broad overview of theory right now. So here are some quick practical tips.

Think of trust as a combination of Character and Competence. High trust happens when we believe that someone will do their best (Character) and that their best is good enough to get the job done (Competence). If either of those is lacking, trust is weakened.

We can work with people we don’t completely trust but it requires us to invest extra time and energy in double checking their work or their motives. That can be effective if it leads to higher trust, but it is demoralizing if it doesn’t.

Think of the key person on your team you have the hardest time trusting right now. Is the issue primarily a matter of character, or competence?

Character Issues

If you don’t believe they are acting with proper ethics and integrity you need to confront them. Calling out character issues is something many leaders find very difficult but the alternative is to let things slide, constantly doubt them, erode your team culture, and repeat the cycle indefinitely. Character issues rarely resolve on their own.

Confronting character issues requires courage, tact, preparation, and personal integrity. It is not easy, but it is a core leadership competency. If you can’t bring yourself to do so; or you can’t do it well, invest in some training or coaching for yourself. There are several excellent models available. I find both Fierce Conversations and Crucial Conversations to be very helpful, (with a slight personal preference for Crucial Conversations).

Competence Issues

If you don’t believe your team member is competent you need to train them. Covering up sloppy work or avoiding giving proper authority to someone because they aren’t ready is a sign of your own poor leadership. Invest in developing your people. Give them the resources and opportunities to grow their skills and see what happens. Expect them to succeed.

Helping people find roles that match their abilities and temperament is one of the superpowers that distinguishes excellent leaders. Profiling tools like Myers-Briggs, Kolbe, or DISC, (when used for find the proper fit rather than for pigeon holing people or assessing their performance), can be very insightful for everyone involved, but ultimately competence comes down to getting the job done. 

If you’ve established clear expectations for both character and competence, made a real investment in someone, and given them the fair opportunity to earn your trust, and they haven’t done so it is time to make a change. You may be able to find a workable alternative for someone who has character but lacks competence, but someone continually lacking in character probably need to be dismissed.

Your cause is too important to be diminished by your lack of trust in your team. Make a commitment to not letting it continue. Either do what it takes to build trust, remove those that can’t be trusted, or depart yourself if you can’t (or won’t) do the hard work required.

Trust me, trust matters that much.

Full program description below or click for pdf version:
Catalyst Foundation Leadership Intensive 2021

Healthy Leaders, Healthy Organizations

Catalyst Foundation Leadership Intensive 2021

Charity leadership is harder than ever. COVID-19’s lasting impact, economic fallout, and global uncertainties with no clear end in sight have made best plans and practices fall apart around us. The leadership approaches we were trained in can’t answer all the questions we have to ask now. On top of that, many of the ways we’ve developed leaders in the past are now impossible.

In 2021 Catalyst Foundation is offering a unique new Leadership Intensive to help you lead well in this reality.

Healthy Leaders, Healthy Organizations brings together the most impactful tools from our three year Partnership Program in a format that can be delivered entirely remotely to any charity, anywhere in the world, in a single calendar year. And it may be just what you need for yourself and your organization to thrive.

Leaders who commit themselves and their teams to the Leadership Intensive can expect to be challenged, encouraged, and invested in towards long term growth in organizational health and impact, as well as sustainable healthy leadership. You will develop and maintain an Organizational Leadership Plan and a Personal Development Plan that will guide your growth for years to come. Your team will be guided in exploring new tools, familiar ideas, and proven approaches to strengthen your organizational culture. 

It is a significant commitment. It will bring significant impact.

Key Components:

  1. Monthly PACE Sessions with first chair leader: General coaching (Perspective, Accountability, Challenge, Encouragement)
  2. Organizational Leadership Plan: Guided questions to help build and update the plan.
  3. Catalyst Content Sessions (5+): Webinar/Zoom sessions of our core tools (Kryptonite, Self Care, 4 Types of Values, 6 Hats for Boards, Facilitation 101, etc.)
  4. Team Training Sessions (4+): Facilitated Zoom sessions for each organization separately (REACTION, Story to Strategy, 4 Disciplines of Execution, Power of Celebration) *Custom sessions are also possible as needed.*
  5. Summer Book Club: Facilitated online discussion

Program Schedule (may be improved to match needs):


First Chair Leader

Facilitated Team Training

Catalyst Content Session

Practical Assignment




Healthy Organizations: Strategy, Execution, Culture 

Organizational Leadership Plan




Healthy Leaders:

Skills, Effort, Identity

Personal Development Plan



REACTION Dashboard 


Address Warning Lights and Celebrations




6 Hats of A Board Director

Board Development Plan




5 S’s of Strategic Communication

Review External Communications



Self-Care and Stress Strategies


Update Personal Development Plan



(if available)


Summer Book Club (Optional)




(if available)


Summer Book Club (Optional)

Update Organizational Leadership Plan



4 Disciplines of Execution 


Effective Meetings Plan




Kryptonite: Identity and Insecurity

Update Personal Development Plan




Facilitation 101: Leading Conversations That Count

Update Organizational Leadership Plan 



The Power of Celebration


Final Feedback & Commitments

Financial Considerations:

In recognition of the pressures experienced by charities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Catalyst’s founders have committed to fully subsidize the 2021 program – representing a $7500+ value to each participating organization.  To help with subsidies of future program participants and to support other charitable work, each organization selected to participate in the program will be invited to make a monthly donation of $100 (or annual donation of $1,200) to the Generosity Plus Fund, a donor advised fund managed by The Foundation Office (, registered charity #835065038 RR 0001.


Because this program can be delivered entirely remotely we are able to make it available to charities anywhere in the world that are able to:

-Commit to the entire process

-Participate comfortably in the English language

-Have reliable internet access for Zoom/Skype sessions

Ideal partners will be organizations with:

-a minimum of 12 active staff

-an expectation of stability in senior leadership roles for the duration of the program and 1-2 years following

-support from the board of directors for participating in the program

-a desire to make ongoing leadership development a core aspect of their organizational strategy and culture.

We welcome charities to apply regardless of location, cause, religious affiliation or lack thereof, annual budget, or past involvement with Catalyst. Applications will be processed with consideration for both anticipated impact on the charity and the impact of the charity on the world. Our desire is to provide this opportunity to a diverse group of participants and special consideration will be given to underrepresented communities.

Application Process:

An online application form can be found at Applications open November 6, 2020 and must be submitted by November 23, 2020 to be considered. We encourage all interested charities to schedule a conversation with our Executive Director prior to completing the application.

All applicants will receive a response on or before December 1, 2020.


We welcome questions either through the contact form on our website or by direct email to our Executive Director –

It is strongly advised that you arrange a conversation with Chris Wignall (Executive Director) before beginning the application process.


A little over a dozen years ago I was diagnosed with a significant hearing loss.

It appears I have always had difficulty hearing certain tones within the typical vocal range and have adapted to distinguish some sounds without even realizing I was missing them. Wearing hearing aids makes a difference.

I don’t talk about it a lot because I rarely need help from others to manage, and I don’t see hearing issues as a core part of what my life and work are about.

Just this morning I learned that the term “tone deaf” is offensive to some people with hearing disabilities. It had never occurred to me that this might be true. In fact I have used that term fairly often in conversation, training sessions, and in some  blog posts. It is an effective way to express the dynamic when people are unable to recognize how their actions or communication are being perceived differently than their intent. And I was demonstrating the behaviour by using the term.

I am sorry for using a phrase that is hurtful to people. I try to be sensitive to these things and I will avoid using that term in the future.

I know some would push back at least a little here. It’s a common phrase that is rooted more in music than in disability, and the typical usage is pretty harmless. There’s certainly no intent to hurt or offend and (from what I can tell) many hearing impaired people don’t object to it. 

So why should I use a less familiar term?

It’s not about political correctness. It’s about compassion and priorities.

It’s also not just about this particular phrase, but every example when well intended language gets in the way.

There are things I want to say, messages I want to deliver, and ideas I want to share that matter quite a lot to me. I believe in them and I think a lot of people, especially leaders, should consider my words and apply the ideas to their lives and leadership.

If my tone, terminology, or timing is off-putting to some people they won’t do that. They will either refuse or simply be unable to take in my messages because I’ve turned them off with something that is far less important to me. What I want to communicate is lost to some people I’d like to understand it.

That’s bad communication.

And blaming your audience for not receiving your message because they are sensitive to something you did that got in the way is arrogant and ineffective. It means you are protecting an insecure ego instead of accomplishing your purpose.

Sometimes we needs to get over ourselves and out of our own way.

Too many leaders allow their intended impact to get sidetracked (or sabotaged) by fighting for the wrong things. We allow ourselves to be distracted defending things that aren’t that important to us, but are meaningful to others. We dig in our heels and think we are showing strength when we are really just throwing the acceptable grown up version of a toddlers tantrum until we get our way.

Take notice of the things that you react strongly to, or that get a strong reaction from others. Challenging people, even offending them, about something that is truly core to your mission and beliefs can be excellent leadership. 

Losing your audience over something unnecessary is bad leadership.


“Never let a good crisis go to waste” – Winston Churchill 

As plans to begin relaxing public health measures and re-open parts of the economic sector are being announced many of us are  asking what will be different post-COVID. In many of these conversations people seem to be operating from a passive posture. We are trying to anticipate broad societal changes over which we have little or no direct influence.

As valuable as it is to do scenario planning to respond well to outside forces, there is a better exercise for leaders right now.

What are the changes this season makes possible for your organization?

Here are a few possibilities you might consider:

1. Establish an Innovation Incubator: We’ve been adapting so rapidly in the last two months that we now understand that it is possible to make significant changes quickly, and to launch them incomplete and improve them on the fly. Start up organizations do this intuitively. More mature organizations may need to set aside an allocation of time, energy, people, and resources to operate a “skunk works” unit who are expected and empowered to experiment with ideas, approaches, and programs that are higher risk than most. Our generation of continuous change will favour those leaders who devote some portion of their support to entrepreneurial innovation.

2. Seek and Destroy: Most leaders have something in their organizations that they would love to eliminate, but haven’t had the courage, political clout, or justification to do so. Some of these are sacred cows and invisible elephants, others are systems, events, or projects that are just slightly too far out of alignment with the strategic direction or of too little impact to continue. You are unlikely to ever again have such an opportunity to clean up your organization according to your priorities. Now is the time.

3. Transform Governance: Board directors have been exposed by this crisis. Some have risen to the challenge to offer greater insight and support to the organization. Others have revealed their lack of awareness or commitment. When we were making urgent and difficult decisions in the early days and weeks of the pandemic impacting our work we saw what our boards are truly providing. As we anticipate emerging in the months to come we may be able to clarify the roles and expectations of the board in new ways. Start with understanding the 6 Hats each board member wears, then have a discussion about what kind of board you really need for the next stage of your work. Adjust accordingly.

4. Buff Your Brand: This crisis has forced us to examine our priorities in profound ways. Some things about how we function have been affirmed, others found wanting. These odd months before a new normal is truly in place are a chance for reviewing the way you represent your organization to your constituents or the public at large. Many marketing consultants are offering online workshops at discounted rates or for free. Whether it’s a new website, strategic social media, a deep cleaning of all your old blog posts, or any other aspect of your brand; your image and reputation can be shaped to best represent where you want to be in the future.

5. Stimulate Celebration: When I first developed the tool that became The REACTION Dashboard the idea that celebration was a major strategic and cultural point of leverage wasn’t on my radar. It has become the aspect that most leaders tell me has had the greatest impact on their lives and leadership. Exploring creative ways to involve your team, donors, beneficiaries, and community in celebrating in these days when we long for good news is a powerful opportunity. The culture of your organization is being shaped by everything that is happening. Wise leaders aren’t just letting that happen. Are you intentionally making yours a culture that celebrates meaningfully?

Catalyst is happy to provide a free consultation with charity leaders who are working to be healthy leaders leading healthy organizations. Contact us to set up a session.

Once upon a time…

There were two leaders, May and Jay, who found themselves trying to guide their organizations through a time that was called “unprecedented” so often that the word lost all meaning. They had risen to the challenge of the initial crisis with energy, decisive action, and great compassion; and their teams and organizations had handled the changes very well. The leaders were grateful for the people they worked with and beginning to think beyond the immediate issues into a longer season of change.

Quite predictably, both May and Jay as motivated leaders were thriving in the demands of the challenges. They told a few trusted friends that although the global situation was truly tragic, they were feeling enthused as leaders by stepping up to what needed to be done. They were tired, but it was the good kind of tired that comes after a solid workout or an invigorating project.

Equally predictably, some of May’s and Jay’s team members were tired, but in a different way. They had also risen to the challenge in selfless and committed ways, but their initial wave of enthusiasm had worn off and it was becoming more difficult to keep up with the needs of the day while also managing family, friends, loved ones, and life in something like lock down. The team were still doing everything they could and May and Jay could not have been more proud to lead them, but the strain was starting to show.

May loves her team. She wanted to help them handle the challenges of the time. So she shared with them what worked for her.

She sent every employee a copy of Getting Things Done and Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and offered an online book club on how to apply the ideas to get the best results. She shared her personal priority practices and set up a weekly webinar where everyone could share goals and outcomes for their personal lives as well as work. She also arranged for an outside consultant to provide a session on how to manage time and energy while working from home. She wanted everyone to have the tools they needed to thrive.

Jay loves his team. He wanted to help them handle the challenges of the time. So he shared with them what worked for him.

He sent every employee a box of cookies from a local bakery and a copy of You Are Awesome! He shared his personal peace practices and set up a weekly happy hour where staff gathered online with a beverage of their choice to chat and laugh together. He also arranged for an online concert and scavenger hunt for employees and their families to enjoy together. He wanted everyone to have the treats they needed to thrive.

Some of May’s team felt overwhelmed. They felt like all these tools were really assignments that added to their obligations.

Some of Jay’s team felt overwhelmed. They felt like all these treats were really distractions from the important work they need to do.

May and Jay were confused. They had given their very best to their teams and it wasn’t working. Instead of appreciated they felt deflated and misunderstood; and even a little annoyed if they were totally honest.

May and Jay had a conversation and shared what was going on.

“May, you’re too intense! You need to lighten up a little and help people find some freedom so they can do their best under demanding circumstances.” Jay said.

“Jay, you’re too casual! You need to be more focussed and help people find some structure so they can do their best under demanding circumstances.” May said.

Of course they were both right.

We all need both structure and freedom in our lives at all times. Wise leaders know to provide both treats and tools. Some of us are drawn to one more than the other, though very few are as extreme as May and Jay. The challenge is when we innocently assume that others have the same needs that we do. As you lead and care for your team in demanding or unprecedented situations be sure to check whether you are giving them what they need, or just projecting your own needs onto them. If you need some help sorting this out contact us for a free coaching session.

Photo by   Zahabiyah Quresh  on  Scopio

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.

These are unprecedented times.

As difficult and uncertain as things are, I’ve been deeply impressed with the ways people are adapting to pandemic precautions. The creativity, dedication, and care demonstrated by charity leaders I see is truly inspiring. I am humbled by your commitment to serving others and your flexibility to handle essentials while supporting your teams. It is a time for leaders to shine.

But in truth, even the best efforts from leaders in this moment are severely limited by everything they’ve done in the past. If you have been driven more by insecurity than a rooted sense of deep identity, and you’ve neglected to build a healthy organizational culture there isn’t much you can do that in the midst of a global pandemic to turn that all around. You can admit your failings and try to improve but it’s going to be extremely difficult.

On the other hand, those leaders who have been working at their own leadership health and that of their teams are able now to see the fruits of that investment as they are able to adapt to uncertainty and rely on their people to step up to demanding circumstances. 

I put it this way on Twitter a couple days ago:

So kudos to the leaders who have done the work in relatively easier times to be able to handle this reality. That is the real work of leadership.

What is this crisis revealing about you and your organization?

During the pandemic response I am working from home to “flatten the curve” and protect my community. If you or your organization would be interested in a leadership session using any of our tools or just an encouraging conversation please Contact me.