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Leadership, Vision
One of the best parts of my work is the time I get to spend with young leaders. I definitely learn more than I teach and I have come to believe strongly that the future is in much better hands than some simplistic and cynical articles would suggest.

There are some things bout Millennials that still confuse me though.

Even as an active social media user I am stunned by how thoroughly many teens and young adults curate their personal image. The effort to portray just the right reputation on Instagram is a real concern, but one I see being actively addressed by the most secure among that generation.

I’m also a little taken aback by the elaborate care involved in producing powerful moments out of life events that used to be much more simple, though no less profound.

The culture of the promposal, with the requisite involvement of a crew of romantic conspirators has reached a level where I pity any teen who simply asks someone for a date. Take a few minutes to browse the remarkable skits, stunts, and art installations that are becoming a basic expectation of going together and you’ll see what I mean.

In a similar way young parents hosting gender reveal parties for their unborn children have spawned a cottage industry of creative pink and blue cakes, balloons, confetti; and unforgettable ways to deliver them. My wife and I didn’t know the gender of our first two children until they were born and the third we knew but didn’t tell anyone. By current standards we were terribly drab.

It’s easy as a nearly 45 year old to see these trends as shallow bids for attention, but that would be lazy, demeaning and inaccurate. Instead we should be recognizing this as a deep rooted desire for celebration.

For many complex reasons, both noble and unfortunate, there is a generation coming who have a greater hunger for moments of shared joy and surprise than those of us who are older generally demonstrate. They are tapping into what I am convinced is latent human need for communal delight that too many leaders see as trivial.

For the last three years I have been fascinated by the potential for celebration to transform organizations. The REACTION Dashboard tool and training has helped leaders begin to make it an active part of their culture. Those that are giving priority to meaningful celebration are finding that it increases engagement, reinforces purpose, enhances camaraderie, improves performance, and makes work a lot more enjoyable for everyone. 

Celebration works.

It’s not a generational thing. The styles may change but the untapped leverage of skillful celebration is something that brings out the best in people. Isn’t that what leaders want?

I’d love to hear some stories of how celebration is impacting your organization. And if you’d like to chat about exploring the potential it can have for you just let me know.
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Leadership, Vision


The larger and more complex the organization, the shallower the top leader needs to be.

(How’s that for a provocative opener?!?)

In any charity, school, business, city, or country the first chair leader (Executive Director, Principal, CEO, President, etc.) has two essential aspects to their role; internal duties and external duties. The internal duties mostly relate to the effective operation of the entity, they are strategic and often complex. They require insight, experience, and sound judgment. I think of it as the deep end of leadership. Most leadership training is focused on developing these abilities.

External duties have more to do with being the symbolic representative of the organization to the stakeholders, constituents, and general public. Being the “face and voice” that shows up at key events, says some inspiring words, shakes hands, and generally flies the flag on behalf of the entire operation. Being good at this part of the role involves a more generic skillset of relational abilities and emotional intelligence. To some it looks like shallow work, but it is essential to any impactful organization.

In small charities the first chair leader is likely to spend a lot of time and energy on deep leadership matters. They may be the issue expert, program manager, primary fundraiser, director of finance, and HR department all at once. With few others to share the load the leader has to be intimately involved in every strategic aspect of operations.

As organizations grow that changes. More people, more resources, more projects and programs; more than any one leader can effectively manage in a hands-on fashion. The internal (deep) demands eclipse the capacity of one person. Delegation becomes a crucial skill and things happen without the Executive Director’s involvement or even awareness.

And the external (shallow) duties should grow simultaneously.

More donors, more events, more media, more speeches, more photo ops.

Eventually the role of the top executive becomes more spokesperson than technician. They have a trusted team of professionals who (preferably) have greater skill and insight than the leader does in their areas of responsibility. The leader’s role comes more facilitative within the organization as they rely on others to get the right done the right way.

Of course top leaders should never abandon deep leadership entirely. They need to retain their ability to probe the operations and programs of the organization and be able to provide more than mere bullet points when questions and issues arise. Their credibility and that of the charity depend on them being more than a talking head.

It can be argued that the most recent federal elections in both Canada and the United States have seen leaders chosen for their shallow end skills. Both Prime Minister Trudeau and President Trump were and continue to be critiqued as being little more than media sensations with little comprehension of the deeper aspects of their roles. (Interesting that they represent somewhat opposite wings of the political spectrum). The relative validity of those assessments is not essential to this post. What is relevant is that both countries voted for leaders whom they saw as exemplifying the qualities and aspirations of the people, not leaders renowned for their policy insights.

Image does matter.

The point is this: First chair leaders are both the symbolic and the strategic point person for their organizations. They need to be both shallow and deep. Insiders (boards, employees, committed volunteers) tend to undervalue the shallow/symbolic aspects of leadership which are crucial to the growth and sustainability of the organization. Those aspects should be constantly considered in their hiring, development, performance review, and priorities but they often aren’t.

How do you approach and improve both the shallow and deep aspects of your leadership?
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I have a strong love/hate relationship with Mission Statements. I love the value that a simple, sincere, and properly communicated and enacted one can make to an individual or organization. I hate how useless, generic, and uninspired they so often become. Even Weird Al Yankovic agrees If your average elementary school student can’t understand it you don’t have  Mission Statement, you have jargon Jell*o. A congealed mass of somewhat impressive phrases that jiggle around sweetly but have no meaningful substance. Start over.
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A friend posted an article from the Vancouver Sun blog today that caught my attention. Here’s the opening line:
United Church of Canada Rev. Gretta Vosper has become a celebrity and sold many copies of her books by writing about how Christianity should just drop the “God” thing.
It’s a provocative introduction to a provocative piece about a provocative person. Obviously the heart of the issue is whether it is appropriate for a committed atheist to serve as a congregational leader in a church that holds explicit convictions in the existence of God. While I have my own opinions on that issue (she and her congregation should resign from the United Church of Canada or have their status with it revoked), I think there’s something else going on here that crosses over to many organizations regardless of whether they claim to be religious. In my work developing the REACTION Dashboard tool over the last couple years I’ve seen numerous organizations that have Alignment problems. They have people, programs, or even departments that are operating towards a Reason other than the one established for the organization as a whole. It always drains energy and resources from the stated objectives and eventually causes glaring inconsistency like the story above. Directional dissonance this severe usually happens slowly, over time, and is rooted in leadership that fails to set and hold to a strong Mission/Vision/Values. The United Church of Canada has struggled with this for years it seems. The problem isn’t that they have taken a particularly liberal theological stance (though some see that as the root of the issue). The problem is that they have failed to take any firm stance. With no clear boundaries or focus it follows naturally that there is no core accountability. It is nearly impossible to define what unifies an organization like this. What is true of one local congregation is not indicative of anything in another. Defining what you don’t do is essential to any healthy organization. The meaningful solution would be for the national leadership to work diligently, with extensive involvement from all levels of participants, to develop a clear, specific, and compelling Reason for the organization and then do the harder work of requiring Alignment to that Reason from all clergy and congregations; knowing it will be immensely complex and costly in many ways. It may be that the slide has gone on so long that there is neither the strength nor the conviction to be so bold. If so there will continue to be similar challenges in various ways moving forward. The problem with The United Church of Canada isn’t Rev. Gretta Vosper. Any healthy organization needs some rebels and contrarians within to raise their voices and challenge the status quo, as well as an openness to hear from outside voices and consider the observations, insights, and critiques that may prove valuable. The problem is that the Reason for the organization is so vaguely applied that its impossible to distinguish whether she and those who share her convictions are inside or outside voices. In any organization that is an indication of a leadership issue deeper and more concerning than any particular provocateur.  
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We are excited to be offering the Catalyst Award again in 2014! We’ve made a few strategic changes this year to make the award accessible to more graduating students. -Applicants do not have to be from Halton Public board high schools. We welcome any graduating student within our region who is able to commit to attending all our relevant events. -We are no longer offering any cash prize with the award. We believe those funds are better used to select additional award recipients. -The entire application can now be completed online. All the relevant information is at: http://www.catalystfoundation.ca/catalyst-award Every year this is one of our most inspiring programs. If you are, or know of, a young leader who is graduating from high school in Southern Ontario this year who has dreams of spending their life for the benefit of others please share this information with them. The application deadline is March 17, 2014.
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Every organization is trying to stretch dollars, and with the pressure to keep “overhead” rates as low as possible (don’t get me started), finding ways to get more value from every investment in your people is both strategically and politically important. As a funder who supports leadership development, I’ve noticed a few simple ways that training can be extended with a little effort and nearly no cost. 1. Book it. There are an endless supply of new leadership books being released all the time, and no one can keep up. In fact, the large majority of the books don’t have anything particularly new to say. At best you can glean a couple applicable ideas and some new angles on the basics we all know we should be doing. Instead of adding to your already towering stack of unread best sellers, go back and re-read the three most useful books you’ve already got. I try to keep a couple increasingly worn favourites on a preferred and accessible shelf near my desk. 2. Story Time. One of the greatest needs in almost every organization is to keep the entire team aligned with the vision and values at the heart of all that they do. It is so easy to lose track of the big idea in the midst of the day to day tasks and occasional crises. Leaders hesitate to overdo repeating the message for fear of annoying people. Stories of impact are gathered and circulated for donors, and the assumption is that our people know what we’re about. At the beginning of every regular meeting take just a few minutes to share one specific story of the impact your organization, or better yet, have different people share how the organization is impacting their own lives. This is even more impactful with office staff who rarely get into the field. 3. Do Lunch. You are sending your people to all kinds of courses, sessions, conferences, and events with the expectation that they’ll learn something relevant. Too often whatever knowledge they gain never gets beyond their own use. Make it a solid expectation that everyone who receives training will, at least informally, present the key content of the experience and how it can be applied here to the rest of their team. Start scheduling lunch and learn sessions at least monthly. Even optional brown bag sessions will begin to gain traction and people will process their learning more deeply. What have you been doing that has helped get more impact out of your leadership investments?
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In 1985 a mockumentary starring pretty much the entire cast of SCTV was produced called The Canadian Conspiracy. It tells the story of a covert operation by Canadians to destroy American culture by placing invading Canadians in prominent places in the entertainment industry. If you’re a fan of Christopher Guest’s type of movies you’d probably enjoy it. I think I may be witnessing a less nefarious and more productive growth of Canadian influence in the nonprofit sector these days. I can think of several multinational charities and ministries in which global influence is being strongly shaped by Canadian leaders. It seems that Canadians often have a set of characteristics that may be timely for working across nations and cultures. 1. Canadians understand Americans. It’s simply true that the United States is the most globally influential nation. No one relates to America like Canada. Living so close, like younger siblings or quieter neighbours (note the use of the proper “u” in that word), we have the ability to translate culturally in a way that is needed for the powerful Americans to best communicate with other cultures. Certainly there are many from the US who have phenomenal cultural sensitivity, but the very melting pot ideal in their narrative and the sheer mass of their influence make it desperately hard for any American to comprehend their power and the impact of their place at the head of the global table. It may take leaders from Canada to help open communication and expose the assumptions that impede open interaction. 2. Canadians are humble. While there are many exceptions, the stereotype of the self-effacing and apologetic Canadian does have some basis in reality. Spreading a mere 35 million people across the second largest national land mass in the world may be part of the reason we don’t exaggerate our own importance. Regardless of the reason, the habit of Canadians to elevate their organization and their team above themselves is one that is strategically advantageous in an interconnected world. 3. Canadians are welcome. For years young American travelers have known that sewing a maple leaf flag on their backpacks makes it easier to get rides and make friends around the world. While some say it may be fading, the global reputation of Canadians is generally positive. We have few enemies and are not seen as any kind of threat. That bias of trust gives us access to information, opportunity, and relationships more easily and efficiently than many others. 4. Canadians are explorers. Our historical narrative is more based on discovery than conquest (though we certainly have plenty of shameful episodes). Our identity was forged more cooperatively than combatively overall and our heroes are more likely to have brought people and ideas together to find new possibilities than to have overcome great opposition. 5. Canadians are funny. As the movie noted, a hugely disproportionate part of the comedy industry in the United States is made up of Canadians. We enjoy laughing at ourselves and poking fun at others, but generally without being mean-spirited. Canadian humour is about coming together, not excluding. Looking back at this list, I have to admit that I know leaders from several countries who may qualify as “Canadians”. That’s a good thing, because these qualities are increasingly important in organizations that seek to work in multiple contexts and cultures. It is no longer working to impose models and practices from one dominant head office, typically in the US. We need to be skilled in exposing the unhealthy effects of power imbalances and working beyond them for a greater purpose. So, to all you Canadians and “Canadians” out there… Way to go, eh!
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Changing organizational culture is often talked about, but the examples of it succeeding are sometimes hard to find. I spent part of the afternoon today with Nathan Siebenga, Principal at Hamilton District Christian High School. IMG_3186 Having lived most of my life within 20 minutes of the school I was vaguely familiar with it’s reputation, but having never been involved in the Christian schools system it was a distant, and not particularly intriguing institution. While touring the halls I saw students engaged in all sorts of problem based learning projects, working enthusiastically without teacher supervision, and demonstrating pride in their school. It was a very positive atmosphere, but more than that, it was a place that just felt like it had purpose. That’s a hard thing to quantify or explain, but you know it when you experience it. A highlight of the tour was being shown the above mural on the wall of an upstairs classroom. It was proposed, designed, and painted by an art class to express the vision of the school. At a glance it tells a story. Students at this school are being challenged and encouraged to become influencers well beyond the walls of the building. They have a role to play in their entire city and beyond. Throughout the school, and in the conversations I had with Nathan and the students, the theme was repeated. This is a place that is for students, constantly being redesigned to better prepare them to pursue their dreams and impact broader society. That may seem obvious, but a visit to any high school will give plenty of evidence that it is a sadly rare thing. Establishing and maintaining a culture like that requires enormous effort, consistency, creativity, and a team of energetic and committed people who are willing to make personal sacrifices and take organizational risks. It’s the kind of culture that has an impact. It’s the kind of culture that people can quickly decide if they want to be involved with, and that wins loyalty from participants, staff, and donors. I’m sure there are plenty of problems at HDCH, and certainly some people probably don’t agree with some part or all of their vision. But that doesn’t entirely matter. For those who are attuned to similar dreams, this is an organization that clearly knows what it aspires to and is actively pursuing it. From Nathan, through the staff, to the students, their families, and their community, there is a commitment to a shared vision that is continually repeated and refreshed. The results so far are impressive.
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With an organizational tagline like “Dreams become Action” I take notice of anything I come across that talks about the value of dreams. Most often it’s something like: the difference between a dream and its fulfillment is strategy and discipline. That’s good stuff. This week I’ve stumbled across what seems like a meaningful distinction between a dream and  goal. And I think it has strategic importance even though it is counterintuitive. Dreams tell us when to abandon our Goals. Here’s what happened… For probably 30 years I’ve imagined myself running a marathon. Getting back into running the last couple years has made that seem much more possible. After a series of injuries in 2012 I’ve made some good progress this year so I decided to go for it and signed up for the Road To Hope Hamilton Marathon coming up on November 3rd. I increased my training and, even though I knew it would be tough to be fully prepared, spread the word that I was running. Committing to the event motivated me to get out the door several times when I would have preferred the couch to the roads and trails. The thing is, even with my best efforts, I’m just not fit enough to run the way I want to. I’ve gotten my training runs up to 25km, but that’s still a long way from the 42.2 of a full marathon. I kept telling myself I was just doing it for the experience, that my finishing time doesn’t matter, that the big idea is just to do it even if I end up walking a lot in the second half. But, while that was taking me towards my goal, it wasn’t my dream. For me, the dream of a marathon has always been to run it well, have fun, finish strong, and to have a time I can feel good about. I finally admitted to myself that struggling for 5 hours in November just isn’t what I want this to be about. I could succeed at the goal of finishing a marathon, but there’s no way I could approach the deeper emotional satisfaction of my dream. So today I’m changing my registration to run the half marathon, which I feel confident I can do fairly well. This has me wondering; how often do we as individuals or organizations push hard to accomplish a goal only to find it an empty experience because it doesn’t truly reflect our deeper dreams? A goal is important, actionable, and motivational, but a dream (when dreamed well) has a powerful added factor of emotional engagement that defines the real objective. Confusing the two is bound to leave us confusingly unsatisfied. Have you ever sacrificed a goal to pursue  a greater dream?
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