The Courage to Continue

Winston Churchill is quoted as saying, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.” Now, it is easy for wordsmiths like me to tout such pithy phrases during challenging times, but when you tease out Churchill’s words they are instructive to all of us who would hope to lead.

Success is not final. So celebrate it NOW. Don’t wait for the big giant wins. Acknowledge the daily steps forward — both yours and those of the people you lead. You can hold people accountable for reaching their goals while still encouraging and thanking them, along the way. What “mini-celebration” is in order today? Ice cream for the team . . . a written thank you note . . . a heartfelt compliment for someone’s novel solution to a unique challenge.

Far too often, we don’t even take time to celebrate the big wins, much less the small steps forward. Success in one area merely becomes a blip on the screen toward the next goal. Maybe we think we’ll come back and celebrate it once we complete the entire project. Except we won’t. Even when it feels like we have reached the peak, there will always be other mountains to climb. Success is not final — so give yourself and your people permission to take a moment to smile, to pat each other on the back and and acknowledge your good work . . today. Success is not a destination. It is a feeling generated by the leader each step of the way.

Failure is not fatal. Yes, it may feel like it at the moment. And the more you cared about the project at hand, the worse it hurts when you come up short. So give yourself a moment to catch your breath and feel the pain of the situation (notice I said a moment, not a month), honestly ask yourself what you learned from the experience, and then dust yourself off and take a step. Will people trust you, will they believe you know what you are doing after you just failed? That all depends. Have you built a culture that recognizes that experimentation and making adjustments are part of the process? Can you acknowledge where you came up short and ask others to help you find a different solution? Are you overwhelmed by what you can’t control, or are you able to identify what you can control and start planning from there? You have the power to decide if failure is fatal, or serves as a launchpad to future success.

It is the courage to continue that counts. Or to use another Churchill quote, “When you’re going through hell keep going.” Leadership is hard. There are days when the successes are fleeting and the weight of failure feels unbearable. Take a step. It doesn’t have to be huge or especially noteworthy, but move. Keep going. Failure infects the stagnant. So don’t be stagnant. Take a step. Consider it an act of rebellion if that helps . . . a refusal to let failure win. 

Lots of people can follow a clearly identified path. But when those best laid plans go awry? That’s when you need a leader . . . not a perfect one who has never failed . . . simply with the courage to continue.

Sail Your Ship

Sailing To The Sunrise“A ship in harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are built for.” — John A. Shedd

Easy enough to say about a ship, but what about your organization? How long have you been anchored in the same spot? Sure you keep the deck swabbed, work hard to keep things shined up and even test the sails on a regular basis . . . but how long has it been since you really sailed?

Think about it . . . what was your organization built for? Probably not just hanging out in waters that feel safe. Oh, I understand the hesitation . . . and you’re right, you likely will encounter gusting winds, choppy waters and even a storm or two . . . you may end up drifting into uncharted waters and there is a chance you’ll end up somewhere entirely different from where you thought you were going when you set sail.

All true. But what was your organization built for? I’m guessing it was not to do what is easy, or safe, or free from stress (who needs a leader for that?). To accomplish important goals, you have to push off from the shore and follow the navigational beacons.

  • Use your mission, vision, and values as your compass. Early captains may have used the stars to keep them on course. Your mission, vision, and values are equally reliable in helping ensure you are heading in the right direction.
  • Focus on the destination, not a specific route. Things rarely go exactly as planned. If you are focused primarily on how you intend to get somewhere rather than where you are going, it will be much harder to adapt to changing currents.
  • Count on your crew. If you have built a well-rounded team, you will have a range of gifts and graces to aid you on the journey. Ask their opinion, listen to their insight, and let them help you steer the ship.
  • Know how to cut through the waves. When things get choppy, commit to a path and go. You may choose to head straight through at a good steady speed, or cut to one side or another . . . but rest assured, proceeding slowly or waffling midway through will result in a rough ride for everyone.
  • Go. Studying charts, looking at the forecasts, and getting advice from others are all well and good, but the only way you are going to get anywhere is to start. Even if you’re uncertain. The only guarantee is what will happen if you never cast off. You’ll be safe, but you won’t succeed.

So take a deep breath, and sail your ship.


Stop Chasing Rabbits

HareAs a leader, sometimes your “stop doing” list is just as important, if not more so than your “to do” list. And one of the things that should be on your stop doing list is chasing rabbits.

If you have ever seen a rabbit being chased, they dart to and fro, first heading one way and then pivoting and moving in a totally different direction. The likelihood that one will catch the rabbit is pretty slim, however, the likelihood that the chase will take you totally off course from where you were headed is almost guaranteed. Stop chasing rabbits.

I get it. Rabbits grab your attention. There will often be well-intended individuals encouraging you to chase after them. And once you’ve started down the rabbit trail, turning around is hard . . . after all, you’ve gone this far, maybe what you’re seeking lies just around the next bend, right?!? Stop chasing rabbits.

For nonprofit leaders, rabbits may come disguised as “funding opportunities” that pull you first one way and then another. When the rabbit first caught your eye, you didn’t think it would lead you too far from your intended path — your stated mission. But, once you start chasing the money, each step may take you farther and farther from the trail you set out to follow.

Other times, “experts” may urge you to veer from your course to follow a “trend” rabbit. According to these unnamed experts, everyone is going to have to be doing it. (At which point I hear echoes of my mother asking something about “if everyone jumped off a bridge . . .”) This rabbit is especially adept at changing directions depending on which way the wind is blowing.

And then there are the “quick and easy” rabbits that seem to promise an easier path than the one that you are currently treading. Maybe quick and easy if you’re built like a rabbit, but few organizations are as agile or designed to adapt to the terrain the way a rabbit is (ever take the “quickest” route recommended by GPS only to end up stranded on a dirt road in the middle on no where?).

I am not saying you should not pursue funding opportunities, listen to experts’ predictions or look for an easier path. I am simply saying you should do all those things within the context of your path . . . your mission. Rabbits aren’t thinking about where you want to go. They are following their own trail. If your paths intersect, great! Just don’t forget to look at each new trail based on the likelihood that it will ultimately lead to where you want to go.

It takes discipline and focus to resist the temptation, but sometimes the best way to reach your destination is to stop chasing rabbits.

Simple Understanding

bigstock--focus lens.jpg“The key to good decision making is not knowledge. It is understanding. We are swimming in the former. We are desperately lacking in the latter.” ― Malcolm GladwellBlink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

As we begin a new year, it can feel like our lives are spinning ever faster. With seemingly unending information outlets — 24-hour news cycles, social media, abundant prognosticators, never mind the numerous print outlets whose reported demise seems premature — it is easy to be overwhelmed by the scope of what we think we need to stay abreast of. And yet, as we begin a new year, we as leaders need to ask ourselves . . . are we doing a better job of accomplishing our missions as a result of acquiring more knowledge?

In far too many cases, I fear the answer is no. Why? I think Malcolm Gladwell nailed it on this one. Abundant knowledge simply makes us talking heads. It is understanding — knowing what is important, which details to focus on and which are simply noise — that allows us to advance our missions. I love Oliver Wendell Holmes’ concept of the “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” That’s the sweet spot. That’s where understanding happens.

So how do you get to that kind of simple understanding? Focused flexibility. Let me explain. The focus part is pretty simple. Who are you (mission, vision, values) and where are you going (strategic goals)? That’s it. If you read the last few sentences and thought, “sure, that sounds nice, but she just doesn’t understand . . .” there’s a pretty good chance you are stuck on the hamster wheel of information/complexity. Trust me on this one. Step off the wheel and focus.

Once you are clear on your focus, flexibility comes into play. You see, you have to walk through the complexity on a daily basis, and some of the knowledge floating out there might provide a faster or easier path to the other side. Your focus is about the destination, the flexibility comes in the route. So be flexible enough to act on new information that directly impacts your ability to reach your destination, while also being focused enough to let the rest of it roll off your back — regardless of what “expert” says you are crazy to ignore the tidbit of information that he or she is peddling.

Still don’t believe me? Think about the most successful leaders you know. Are they bouncing around, reacting to every headline or do they have a calm focused presence — dare I even say a simple understanding of where it is their organization is headed?

That is my hope for you as a leader, and your organization, in the coming year. Simple understanding. See you on the other side!

Passing the Torch

Passing The TorchAs we draw to the end of one year, and begin to plan for the next, I have a leadership question for you. Are you actively working to pass the torch? I don’t necessarily mean yours (although you shouldn’t rule that out either) . . . I mean your organization’s torch. Let me explain.

We have a concept in our organization that we have dubbed “second generation leadership.” For starters, we shift people’s roles more frequently than many organizations, which offers a range of benefits. We work with a gifts and graces mindset. That is, when you recognize the unique skills and perspectives of your staff members, you can then identify people to take on a project or new initiative based on those things rather than by tenure or title. This kind of flexibility allows the organization to be nimble in the face of emerging opportunities. It also enables people to grow and develop in ways that would not happen in a more traditional hierarchical structure. We, in effect, have what Kotter  identifies as a dual-operating system.

And then we take the concept one step further. Once a program or concept is developed, we also look at opening up spots for others to sharpen their skills by again shifting leadership roles. This allows the original leaders to grow and expand in new areas and also encourages emerging leaders to stretch themselves, and yes occasionally stub their toes, as they further build their capacity. A side benefit of this is that the focus stays on the program, the mission, rather than on one particular person’s way of doing things. It becomes “our program” rather than “their program,” not to downplay anyone’s contribution (of which there are many) but to shine a light on the larger mission. We pass the torch, and in so doing keep the organization’s flame burning bright.

I give this example not to say that the way we go about passing the torch is the right way, or the only way, but merely as an example that this isn’t some theoretical whoo-whoo. Passing the torch allows people to continually stretch and grow, it invigorates your organization, and keeps your programs from getting stagnant because new ideas get infused on a regular basis. Yes, you have to watch for mission drift, and yes, it can be hard for people to let go of “their baby” that they have worked so hard to build. But they aren’t really letting go. They become more like grandparents who can take great pride in the “parenting” of the next generation.

Passing the torch is not always easy, but it is important if you want your organization to be a place of new ideas that continually strives to extend its mission reach. As you look toward a new year, what steps will you take to expand the flame of engagement and excitement throughout your organization? Maybe it’s time to pass the torch.

Leadership Lessons Born in a Manger

This blog was originally posted December 23, 2014. It’s message is as timely for leaders today as it was then. Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas.

Nativity Scene

How many leaders today could even fathom their impact being felt throughout the world for more than 2,000 years? Truly, from the most humble of earthly beginnings came the greatest leader that any person could strive to emulate. In this Christmas Season, as we celebrate Jesus’ birth, it seems most appropriate to reflect on a few leadership lessons born in a manger.

  • He was humble, yet would not be deterred from his mission. Twenty centuries later, Jim Collins would describe this as Level 5 Leadership — a paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will. Jesus set an unreachable bar in terms of knowing it was not about him, but it was up to him. Just because the bar is unreachable doesn’t mean you and I shouldn’t strive to follow his example and make sure the focus stays on the what, not the who.
  • He never lost sight of the big picture, or the importance of little things. Here was a man who clearly knew how things ultimately needed to unfold. In spite, or perhaps because, of that he took time for the little things — an individual conversation or blessing, a meal with friends — that would forever impact those he touched. How many of us either get consumed by the what-ifs, or distracted by the details, and ultimately diminish our impact?
  • He recognized, and built on, the gifts and graces of his team. With all due respect, it was a rather motley crew that he called to serve as his disciples. And then there was Saul (before his conversion to Paul). Seriously, who among us would bring someone who was persecuting us into the fold? And yet, Jesus saw the gifts and graces within each of these souls. Are we as leaders willing to look beyond the safe bet, the likely candidate, to build on the potential hidden in unlikely wrappers? How might we extend our mission reach if we took that risk?
  • He took time to renew his spirit. I know, I know, we don’t have time to step back . . . demands are coming from every direction . . . our staff are seeking guidance . . . a deadline is looming . . . Um, hello, Jesus had to deal with, among other things, 5000 hungry people, a panicked staff, and two loaves and fishes, and yet he still found time to be by himself. If the Son of God needs time for rest and renewal, do you think maybe, just maybe, we mere mortals could improve our performance by taking a deep breath every once in a while?

Clearly, I am no theologian . . . but I do consider myself a student, and one who has barely scratched the surface of the many leadership — and life — lessons born in a manger so many years ago. As you listen to the carols, and perhaps walk past a nativity set, I hope you’ll take a few moments to reflect . . . not only on the babe in the manger, but also on the rich lessons His life holds for all of us who are called to lead. May you and yours have a most blessed Christmas Season.

How Will They Know?

Christmas Tree and Gifts. Over black background

Have you ever noticed that moments of insight, or reminders, often come in the most unexpected of ways?

Last weekend my boys were home from college, so they had the opportunity to help out a bit as I started decorating for Christmas. I am, perhaps, a bit enthusiastic about this task. As my oldest son finished setting up the third tree he commented, “That’s the last one, right?” “Almost, there is one more little one for the porch.” To which my son replied, “Mom (insert eye roll here) . . . they will know we are Christians by our love, not by the number of Christmas trees we have . . .”

We both chuckled at his comment, but it echoed in my head all weekend. How often, as leaders, do we get so caught up in what we are doing . . . the meetings, the projects, the initiatives, the never-ending to-do lists . . . that it seems to overshadow the why? Sure we often need all those things to accomplish the why, but if we are not careful, over time, we can focus so much on the details of the new endeavor, overcoming the identified foe, reaching projections, that we forget why we were doing all of that in the first place. Is it to grow by X%, to capture more market share, to bolster our own ego?

I hope not. I hope that you started on the leadership odyssey because you believed in something . . . something that tugged on you in such a way that you could not sit on the sidelines . . .that you saw important work and knew you had the gifts and graces to move it forward. And I hope that mission still drives you, because that is what will keep you going among all the minutia that is required along the way. Sure, we all occasionally get consumed by the “stuff” of leadership, but when that happens I challenge you to ask yourself, “How will they know?”

How will your people know your “why”, the mission that compels you, and hopefully your entire organization, forward? Will they know it through your words and actions, or are they left to draw their own conclusions? Do you talk frequently and openly about the underlying purpose of why you are doing what you are doing? When your people see you keeping the “why” front and center, they will be encouraged to do the same. Not only that, but leading off discussions with the why also opens up possibilities that might not be considered if people are only focused on a task, rather than a larger mission.

Meeting performance indicators doesn’t tell people your “why” any more than a fourth tree does. If you are going to accomplish great things you, and your people, have to be clear on the why. So the question remains . . . how will they know?

Taking Care

YellowstoneLast week marked the 100th anniversary of our country’s National Park Service. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation to conserve our natural treasures for the enjoyment of countless generations to come, and named the National Park Service as caretakers of this important mission. Caretakers . . . taking care . . . isn’t that what all of us who are leaders should be doing for our organizations?

Sure, maybe you aren’t charged with protecting the majestic beauty of Glacier National Park, or maintaining the wildlife in Yellowstone, or honoring the fallen at Little Big Horn, but I’m guessing your organization has a fairly lofty mission all the same. And like the National Park Service, if you are truly serving as a caretaker for your organization, you shouldn’t make decisions for this quarter, or even this fiscal year. You should be making decisions that will keep your organization on solid footing for generations to come.

How? By taking care. Of your people, your resources, the legacy of those who came before you. Taking care often isn’t expedient. It doesn’t always respond to the latest fads. It keeps its feet firmly planted on your organizational mission, while also looking around two corners to prepare for the future. Taking care is about the long view, and in our instant everything culture, that can be very hard.

The other thing to note about care-taking is that it’s not about you. It is about something much bigger. Your organization’s mission, its legacy. Too many people today have a romanticized view of leadership as meaning you are in the spotlight or the center of attention. When a leader serves as a caretaker, however, the focus is on taking care, which means standing back and letting the mission take center stage.

Taking care is quiet leadership. Which should not be confused with weak or uncertain leadership. It is about studying the chessboard of your organization, and setting up the pieces today so they will be where they need to be three moves into the future. It is making the hard decisions because that’s what is in the best long term interests of the organization — even when it causes you or others pain in the short term.

In my experience, caretaker leaders are driven from the inside, rather than motivated by external rewards. Sure, external validation is nice, but it is the inside stuff that keeps them up at night, and gives them the most satisfaction at the end of the day. Caretakers are the ones who want their organizations to be around for the next 100 years and beyond.

And it all starts with taking care.

Know When to Hold’em

Cowboy With Poker Face

There’s an old Kenny Rogers song (yes, I know I’m dating myself) that says, “You’ve got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run . . .” All in all, pretty good leadership advice. The only problem is, the song neglects to identify the how. How do you know when it’s time to hold and when it’s time to fold? As you assess the hand that you’ve been dealt, and try to strategize your way to ultimate success, here are a few tips for your consideration.

When to hold’em?

When it is a matter of values, integrity or primary strategic intent, hold fast. If you lose your integrity, you’re sunk as a leader. If you’re flexible on your values when times get tough, your integrity takes a hit. Integrity and values take a long time to establish and a short time to lose. Regardless of the challenges/opportunities presented by others sitting around the table, always hold on to these two. By primary strategic intent I mean the what, not the how. Stay true to your mission, your vision, your ultimate goals. There may be 101 ways to fulfill that mission, but if you lose sight of where you’re going, you’ll probably be disappointed in where you end up.

When to run?

If you’re clear on when to hold’em, then knowing when to run is pretty easy . . . in theory. If it diminishes your integrity, your values, or your strategic intent, it’s time to run. The challenge comes in the fact that some people are pretty good at dressing up a pig. They’ll have all kinds of excuses and “yes, buts.” They’ll tell you to be realistic, to consider the circumstances, that the potential gain is worth it. Your gut will often be telling you to run long before your head does. Listen to it.

When to fold’em or walk away?

Decisions to fold’em tend to be about the how. This path is not going to pan out, so you stop investing in it and find another way forward. It’s not giving up on your goal, it’s just recognizing when you need to find an alternate route. Walking away, on the other hand, signifies that any ultimate gain is not worth the investment it would take. Both are reasonable actions that allow you to have the resources and energy to stand strong on your “hold’em” projects.

Which brings me to one final point . . . based on this “Gambler” approach to leadership, three-quarters of the time you’re not going to pursue the hand you’re dealt. There will be lots of “opportunities” that others will encourage you to take that you should probably pass on, not necessarily because they are bad, they just aren’t the winning hand for you or your organization.

It’s all a matter of knowing when to hold’em.

What’s in Your Pack?


Spending a week at Philmont Scout Ranch is sort of like the ultimate right of passage for a boy scout . . . hiking long distances over challenging terrain in the New Mexico mountains . . . carrying everything you need on your back. Great care is taken to inform the young adventurers (and their chaperones) what will and will not be needed for the journey to keep their backpacks from getting too heavy. Once they arrive at camp, their packs are unloaded and experienced guides tell them which “essentials” they really don’t need. And while I haven’t actually been to Philmont, I’ve been told that the trails are littered with new camping gear that was discarded when hikers’ packs weighed them down along the way. One of my favorite pictures from when my son went to Philmont is shot from behind. You see his legs, his hulking backpack, and nothing else.

Ever feel like that as a leader? The responsibilities, expectations, goals, aspirations, commitment to mission, recognition of need (the list goes on) that leaders carry around on their backs can get pretty heavy. Sure we are initially proud of how much we can fit into our leadership backpacks . . . found a little extra space here, so I can fit in one more thing . . . but when you are at the bottom of a mountain looking at the climb ahead, that pack on your back can suddenly feel unbearably heavy. At that point, you have two options — a stronger back or a lighter load.

As a leader, you are likely stronger than you think, and by putting one foot in front of the other, you just might be amazed at how far you can go (your pack weighs just as much when you’re standing still commiserating about your situation as it does when you choose to forge ahead). For all but the most seasoned leaders, however, there are probably also ways you can lighten your load.

What can you delegate, and in so doing provide an emerging leader the chance to more fully develop their skills? Sure, they might stumble, but with a lighter load you’ll be able to steady them and send them on their way.

How much dead weight in the form of would’ve, could’ve, should’ve are you carrying around? Dump it.

How much of other people’s “stuff” have you allowed to be piled onto your pack? Hand it back to them. It’s not your stuff.

When you lighten your leadership backpack, and only carry the essentials, you have the energy to look toward the peaks, notice the amazing vistas along the way, and enjoy the journey. What’s in your pack?