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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.

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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, 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.


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.

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?

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.

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.  

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: 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.

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?