After the Leadership Conference – Now What?

After the Leadership Conference ... Now What?

I develop leaders.

I speak at conferences.

I attend conferences.


This week, I attended the Willow Creek Leadership Summit. Lot’s of enthusiasm and inspiration, great talks and encouraging moments. I took my family and 5 of my honors students. We found the experience exciting and energizing. Like many others, that is why we go. It is an emotional thrill, and leaders need a leadership lift whenever we can get one.

Many of the speakers acknowledged this kind of event is a REMINDER event. We need to hear what we already know, and be inspired again to plug away, stay the course, and lead well. And often we gain a new insight or have an “aha!” moment. These are truly valuable.

But what happens after the thrill is gone? It is the age-old conference dilemma. In a few days the buzz is gone, the notebook goes on the shelf, the twitter frenzy dies down and people return to the same challenges, problems, lousy bosses, fundraising shortfalls and HR headaches.

Am I being pessimistic? Should we stop going to conferences? NO! Let me be clear. I love conferences! I love speaking at them and going to them! I love hanging with other leaders and getting to know their stories, successes and challenges. This is essential for every leader!

10 Risky Questions for Leaders

I am always intrigued by what is said in commencement speeches. Steve Jobs’ famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford is one of the most Googled.  His “stay hungry, stay foolish” theme really resonated with listeners. If you never heard it, it is a real gem. You can watch it here.



This June, at my alma mater’s graduation ceremonies, Princeton’s departing President, Shirley Tilghman, referred to Jeff Bezos’ commencement address to graduates in 2010. Though not as memorable or as well-known as Jobs’ talk, Bezos offered a series of questions for leaders or at least what every leader should be asking.


Bezos is Founder and CEO of and is a Princeton Class of 1986 graduate.  His remarks challenged graduating seniors to consider 10 key questions.  Here they are for your consumption.


1)     Will inertia be your guide, or will you follow your passions?

2)     Will you follow dogma, or will you be original?

3)     Will you choose a life of ease, or a life of service and adventure?

4)     Will you wilt under criticism, or will you follow your convictions?

5)     Will you bluff it out when you are wrong, or will you apologize?

6)     Will you guard your heart against rejection, or will you act when you fall in love?

7)     Will you play it safe, or will you be a little bit swashbuckling?

8)     When it’s tough, will you give up, or will you be relentless?

9)     Will you be a cynic, or will you be a builder?

10)   Will you be clever at the expense of others, or will you be kind?


I certainly was challenge by almost all of these. I did not feel a sense of guilt or failure so much as new resolve to grow and risk in these areas. Numbers 1, 6, and 9 have particular meaning for me at this moment in life and leadership.


How about you? I suggest you reflect honestly on the list, and choose your top 2-3 questions for further investigation and focus. Leaders – especially those who share leadership or have collaborative styles – will have to take some risks that will cause discomfort and leave you vulnerable to failure or criticism.


But what other options are there? A life filled with woulda-coulda-shoulda regrets and a leadership legacy what-if’s and what-might-have-beens?


Not for me. And I hope not for you.

Life-Shaping Values

Values that shape you

What are the values that guide your decisions or influence how you spend your time? A few years ago I set out to define a few. I wanted them to be broad enough to address most aspects of life but have enough clarity to use as a “grid” or a “filter” for actions I might take, relationships I would be seeking, and how I might approach my work.

Values answer “WHY” the questions of your life, mission or a direction you are considering. They provide a guiding framework for reflection, decision making and time allocation.

Here are my four driving values. Confession: I do waste time and I do make bad decisions. But I know I would make more and squander more without a growing, guiding sense of why I do what I am doing.


Compelling Truth

I have to ask myself sometimes, “Is there are good reason I am doing this? What do I really believe? Are there certain “life truths” that guide me. Because I am a person of faith in the Christian tradition, I hold to some truths I believe have been revealed by God to guide our lives. These are captured in well-know scriptures and creeds. I think of the Ten Commandments, The Lord’s Prayer, Psalm 23, The Apostle’s Creed, The Book of Common Prayer, and some confessions and statements of faith created throughout the ages by various groups. (For an artistic and beautiful video rendition of Psalm 23, you might look at this video .)

There are other important truths as well. Some of mine include “don’t sacrifice family to get ahead at work; honor your life rhythms; listen to your story and the stories of others; make the hard choice, most of the time it is the right one; your word is your bond; the news is not always true; everything works great until people show up; and, like they say, never take a sleeping pill and a laxative before bed. (Some awkward truths you just have to share!).


Does my life reflect truths I believe and do my actions contribute to their expression?


Inspiring Beauty

I love art, music, poetry, good food, great books and inspiring experiences. I use the term “beauty” to capture all of these because engagement with beauty moves me emotionally. Some beauty is superficial to be sure, and it can be used to manipulate and tempt and deceive. But at the core beauty lifts the soul, refreshes the heart and puts a smile on your face.

There is a deeper, truer beauty we need to pursue and embrace in the world and with one another. Model Cameron Russell shook the modeling world with her “tell all” talk at TED in January of this year. If you have not seen it, you must – especially you women.



Does my activity add beauty to what we are doing; am I taking time to soak in the beauty of the moment?


Bold Love

Love is a most misunderstood virtue, often containing a mix of wondrous truth and awful lies. I wonder if many people truly understand love anymore, especially in light of how we demean and trivialize it.

Bold love implies adventure—the risk we take to offer loving acts of kindness, loving words of hope and affirmation, or simple loving expressions of touch or our presence to those whose lives ache with pain, heartache and rejection. “Bold” love challenges me to love others when at first they appear unlovable; it causes me to share love when it requires work to express that love (to the poor, the sick and the lonely); and bold love means receiving expressions of love from others even when I feel unworthy of love. It is the kind of love Dan Allender describes in his book Bold Love.


Does bold love define the way you view others, yourself, God and the world today?


Authentic Community

We are experiencing a return to communal life. The “rugged individualism” that Robert Bellah and others referred to in Habits of the Heart is finally giving way – in some places – to a more communal and “others-focused” mindset.

We all long for true community we are love, know, celebrate and serve one another, working together toward mutual goals and becoming a group of people that enjoy life together. I am privileged to share this kind of community with my family, a small group that meets regularly, some neighborhood friends, and some colleagues globally. For me, the “shared life” is the only life worth living.


Does a commitment to community guide the way you live, serve, and manage your life?


What are the values that shape you? Send them along so we can all learn from your thoughts – thanks.

Conflict Navigation – 6 Steps You Cannot Ignore

Conflict Navigation Dr. Bill DonahueI was talking with my son on the phone about a situation he was facing – a conflict between two members of a group that was affecting the entire group of eight. So, instead of having their regular gathering, the two members plus three from the group gathered to work it out together.

As he described what happened and how they chose to handle it, I realized they were wise about how they approached the situation and resolved it. And it reminded me of some principles of conflict navigation that every team, group and leader should be aware of. I have practiced and taught this for years.



1 – Start Soon: The temptation to avoid conflict often leads to not facing it at all. People put it off so long they figure, “That’s water under the bridge, now. Let’s just move on.” Or they think, “Maybe it will fix itself.” I guarantee that never happens. Don’t let things go on so long that deep-seated feelings and anger start boiling under the lid. The next time there is a disagreement among members this pot is going to blow! You don’t have to act immediately; let emotions calm down, get a clear head, clarify what you want to say, and then in 24-48 hours deal with it.


2- Meet Face to Face: Not email, not texting, not writing a long heart-felt letter. The impersonal approach makes it difficult to have a conversation, read feelings, respond “in the moment” and intercept misperceptions before a long trail of emails or texts gets established. Have a cup of coffee and work it out.


3- Affirm the Relationship: Be genuine and let the other party (or parties) know that you are there for them, you want to restore health to the relationship or team, and that you value them. Name some positive contributions or attitudes you see, and remind them that “You matter to us/me and that is why we need to meet and remove this barrier to our friendship/work.” This let’s them know you really want to work this out and move on. You are not finger-pointing just to “win” or be “right” – rather, you want restoration.


4- Make Observations not Accusations: Avoid “you” language and use “I” language. “You are a liar” is just going to add fuel to the fire. Better to say, “Twice I heard you say that you would make that phone call Tuesday, and now it is Thursday and the client is frustrated. I am concerned about that relationship.” OR, “Yesterday when you and I were arguing I felt attacked for my opinion. I heard you say some very harsh words and it hurt me. We need to talk this through.” Stick with, “I saw, I heard, I felt” language and then let them respond.


5- Get the Facts and Listen: Once you have taken a minute or two to make your comments, listen and ask, “Do you understand what I saw/felt/heard and why that is causing a problem?” Make sure you hear their words as well as their emotions. Clarify, repeat what they are saying to show you are listening, and make an effort to show you understand their side. (Same thing if you are the third party – make sure to two people in conflict have heard each other by making them say what they heard. DO NOT assume they listened, and do not simply ask for a yes-or-no response to the question, “Did you hear what Susan was saying?”


6- Promote Resolution: “Ok, so where do we go from here? Let’s find a way we can move forward. What do you need to take place? Here is what I need.” It may take some time to fully restore a relationship, especially if the conflict was bad and harsh things were don or said. But at least you can get the “issue” resolved, agree to move ahead, and determine a plan for continuing to process the damage, as needed. Avoid the extremes of dragging it out or trying to “clean it all up” in a hurry just because it is painful. You will regret wither approach. Stay in the process and move toward resolution.



Some good resources to use are:


Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott –


Caring Enough to Confront, by David Augsburger

Warning: This is Hazardous to Your Leadership!

Warning: This is Hazardous to Your Leadership!

This is something every leader must avoid because it will destroy everything you are working for.



Warning: This is Hazardous to Your Leadership!




Warning: This is Hazardous to Your Leadership!

Hi. Today I want to talk to you about something I think is quite destructive to relationships, robs people and organizations of innovation, foster cynicism, can crush morale, and can create a culture of fear and anxiety.

That problem, that issue, is legalism. It rears itself in business and education and religious institutions, sports, arts it doesn’t really matter wherever you have organizations and people working together you have the potential for legalism.

Let me give you three signs that deal legalism‘s rearing its ugly head.

1. When people begin to value rules over relationships that would be the first one. Just recently financed, I should say refinanced my home in the current climate of the mortgage challenge in our country. I have solid credit, solid financial standing the numbers were right but there are so many rules, so many hoops to jump through that it became difficult to go through the process. It took months, it was very frustrating to me and it was frustrating for some of the people trying to work with me the bankers and others involved in this. It’s just there were so many rules that it seemed that my relationship to the institutions I’d had for so many years in the trust that had been built didn’t matter … rules mattered more. That’s where things get a little too legalistic.

2. A second sign is when we value being right over being righteous. When someone says no, my opinion, my point of view matters more than our integrity as an organization or my integrity as a person. That’s what I mean by righteous it’s not just the religious terms think of it in terms of integrity. A group once wrote an article against an organization I was a part of misrepresented facts, distorted data, were trying to find things to manipulate and use for their own purposes and their own agenda. I confronted them on this particular article and pointed out the discrepancies in it, in light of reality and gave them the real facts. They eventually acknowledged that yes they were wrong and I said, “Great would you print a retraction in your next issue?” They said, “No.” Because it was more important for them to be right, to appear that they were right. It’s frustrating; their integrity to me was compromised in that situation.

3. A third sign would be protecting our own reputation instead of being able to name a reality, whatever the cost for that might be. Looking at myself instead of looking at the problem or the issue and letting that kind of rule the day. So a drug company makes a mistake and what do they do? They manipulate the government or other legislation or the political arena or the legal arena. They do something to try to cover up or act like it wasn’t there a problem because they care more about protecting their brand. In reality they destroy their brand because they destroy the reputation.

So legalism is everywhere and you’ll find it as I said in business, in arts, in education any institution you’re a part of. The place you need to watch out for the most is in the mirror.

Do you care more about your rules instead of the relationships you’re forming?

Do you care more about being right than having integrity and being in right standing with others?

Do you care more about protecting your own reputation or your organizations then you care about reality?

If that’s happening you’re becoming a legalistic  Don’t let that happen, lead well today and watch out for legalism.

The School of Adversity

It’s compulsory education for every person on the planet. You simply must attend the School of Adversity.

School of Adversity Quote - There is no education like adversity

You need only meet 1 of 2 entrance requirements and you are automatically enrolled. No need to go online or show up at registration. If you 1) have a pulse or, 2) you can fog a mirror, you’re enrolled. Mandatory. There are no vouchers and no “school choice” options available. Once enrolled, classes begin immediately and might be held any day of the week, 365 days a year. There are no vacation days and no holidays (but there are LOTS of sick days).

It is likely each of us will take different classes in the School (Stomach Flu 101, My Teenager Hates Me 407, Chronic Unemployment 511- a graduate level course) and probably we’ll have different majors. NOTE: majors are assigned, rarely chosen. Some students will find themselves in the popular Financial Ruin Program or taking several courses in the Perpetual Pain Department. And almost everyone does a minor in Annoying Facebook Friends.

But no one gets a pass. Ever.

There are no strings you can pull. No Congressman or Senator can get you out or provide an appointment to a less rigorous program (like enrolling in the popular School of Rock – sorry, Jack Black).  There is no AP credit or credit transfers from other highly acclaimed, elite programs like the School of Hard Knocks (I spent a couple semesters there – it was hard…very, very hard).

Like it or not, you must enroll in the School of Adversity.

But don’t worry; no one can make you graduate. Actually, no one graduates. Ever. It’s like continuing education for CPA’s or required HR training classes on wellness management. Classes start and continue all the way to infinity… and beyond. Well, I suppose this is a graduation day. But you really do not want to hear about it.

Also, there are no online or virtual courses. Every class is live, has no official professor, and always takes place in the Experiential Learning Lab. All classes are on campus, but it is easy to get there. The campus address is: 5 Your Location, Anywhere, Earth.

Another bummer is cost. The School can be quite expensive. Actual costs may vary from student to student, and there are no scholarships or financial aid. Everyone pays full price regardless of how many classes you are taking, so you might as well load up early. Heck, I knew a guy who was carrying 42 hours one semester, and he almost died. Really, it almost killed him. He said he learned more that semester than in any other. But it was brutal. Made Med School and MIT look like kindergarten classes.

One thing you want to avoid at all costs – taking classes alone. As a matter of fact, going through the School of Adversity is a lot better if someone takes the classes with you. It is not only allowed, it is encouraged! (You can share answers, ask for help and solve the same problems using the same solutions others have already discovered! They are all cataloged in the Wisdom Library if you take the time to find them. That part is very cool.)

Actually, large families, small groups, neighborhood communities, and sometimes – this is hard to imagine – entire countries have gone through a class together! It makes the School of Hard Knocks look easy by comparison.

There is something about doing it together that not only makes it better, but each class seems to get a little easier to handle; the surprise quizzes are not so surprising, the tests require less preparation and study, and you tend to get higher grades. Did I mention that grades matter?

How you perform prepares you for the next class, though it might be in a different department. For example, I did well some years ago in the introductory Facing Your Fears 101 class because I had already taken Working in a High-Crime Area 201. Facing Your Fears is usually a pre-requisite for all 200-level classes, but for some reason I was forced to take WHCA 201 first. That happens quite often. Classes are rarely offered in logical order. (Very annoying. But there is an elective to help with that now: Annoyances and Petty Frustrations 001 is available whenever you plan a vacation or prepare for Christmas.)

And, surprisingly at first, many students report a sense of joy and gratitude after completing a particularly difficult class! Kind of counter-intuitive  to say the least, though I confess I understand.

Well, I am off to class. Right now I am just beginning Character Growth 204 with a group of friends. There is no syllabus so we do not know what will happen. But we are told by the Administration that we will have the choice to “become bitter or better” as a result of what we experience. Not sure I am looking forward to all of it, but I hear they do have recess and a snack!

Since Christmas I have been enrolled in several courses of moderate but annoying difficulty: Your Wife Broke Her Leg at Christmas 305, Daughter Badly Sprained Ankle in Championship Game 208, I Threw My Back Out Sunday 401 (an intensive 3-day seminar), Son’s Car Needs 3rd Repair in Two Weeks 510, and The Water Pump for Your Home Broke 211.

I am discovering that the School of Adversity while not always a fun place to visit is a great place to learn.

I am getting better at responding with joy in the struggle of pain, listening more carefully to God and others when trials come crashing down, and building up some tolerance to the dozens of small annoyances that pester me like sand flies on the beach of life.

And I continue to gain empathy and respect for the awful circumstances and challenges others face worldwide (in doctoral-level courses I dare not even name and, thankfully, will hopefully never have to take.)

Like you, I am a full-time student in the School of Adversity. So off to class I go. Oh no, my car won’t start…That’s just great…I’ll be late for class.

Oh, wait a minute. This IS my class. Here we go. Hope I pass. Wanna join me?


What Courses are you taking in the School of Adversity? What are you learning? How can you and others get through it together?


We would like to encourage your feedback as it helps us to identify the issues that are important to you. It also helps others who are searching to develop new creative ways of leading. Thank you in advance for your comments.

7 Tips for Great Communicators

Image of 7 Tips for Great Communicators headlineIn my ongoing research on great communicators I just finished a book by Ken Bain entitled, “What the Best College Teachers Do” and there were many solid ideas for everyone who stands before an audience and teaches, preaches or leads.

Here are 7 things great teachers do.

1)    Create a Learning Environment.

I have often encouraged teachers to create a learning environment versus a teaching environment.

a. What is the problem, issue or provocative question you plan address? Be very clear about this and as specific as possible. Is it possible to eradicate poverty in our city in 5 years.

b. Provoke the listener to face that issue or problem. Why MUST they listen? Cause them to engage, synthesize information, analyze ideas, evaluate the information – it is NOT enough they remember it. Clever acronyms and alliteration might help people remember the content outline, but do little to promote learning. It is not enough to help the poor – we must transform their lives.

c. Where do we go from here? Now that we have answered the big question/problem, what is the next question that must be addressed? Now that people know and understand the plight of the poor and a call to action, what is our next step in solving this problem? 

2)    Keep Attention.

Stories, video, case studies, dialogue and props are all possible means for doing this. Creative communication must accompany clear communication. Great Communicators avoid clear and boring which is no communication at all. For the next 5 minutes we will watch a documentary on a local homeless shelter. You will take notes, discerning the strategy of this shelter, how effective it is, and what local citizens can do to partner with them.

3)    Begin with the Student, not the Content.

I agree with this most of the time. The point is to get into the heart and mind of the learner early in the presentation. Where is the learner? I want you to describe what a day without coffee, food and water would mean to your routine, combined with 10 hours of manual labor.

4)    I am responsible to help you learn. You are responsible to learn.

The student/learner must own their learning. Make them grapple with how they will learn more. Lets break into groups and create a process for understanding the plight of the poor in our city – where do we start and how will you accomplish that learning this week?

5)    Learn Outside of Class.

It is difficult to create enough stimulation, motivation and curiosity to provoke a learner to learn between classes, sermons, lectures, etc. Teaching them to ask great questions and probe deeply into issues are transferable skills that must be learned. I am giving you an article to read this week, and a website to review. Create a list of questions you want answered by that article/site before looking at it, and email them to me.

6)    Provoke and Teach Critical Thinking.

It remains a mystery to me how few people think about what is taught. A bias for action is the mark of a strong leader. But so is a bias for thinking. Is this the best approach? What case does the author make? Why should we believer her? Is this an argument based on fact or opinion? How is the data being interpreted? What is missing? What needs more study? Should we do a pilot program?

7)    Create Diverse Learning Experiences.

Stories, dialogue, role play, group work, monologue, video, case studies, live site visits, cross-cultural experiences, trips, debates, games, on-the-job feedback, props, and design-your-own-experience are a few ways to stimulate learning. We are asking each of you to spend 2 hours this week/month at a homeless shelter, food pantry, or job center, volunteering your time or participating in the experience. Keep a journal of thoughts and observations, and any transformational moments you experience.

Great leaders become great communicators; and great communicators create great learners.

How do you create a learning culture in your work? Share your ideas with us!

The Voices of Leadership

Great leaders are engaged listeners – but to whom?

To what voices should they pay heed?

Make no mistake…Voices matter! Here are a few that compete for your attention.

The Client’s Voice

Everyone who wants to be successful listens to the people in their target audience. What do they want? What do they need to be effective? How can you provide this? Should you provide it?

While the customer’s voice matters, don’t let it rule over you. I have seen too many businesses, schools and churches reshape everything they did because of a loud, clamoring customer base. In the process they compromised their identity, values and core mission. A smart leader knows what they do well – and what they DO NOT do well.

The Staff’s Voice

Your people matter. Employees, teams, top staff, core members of your non-profit, key volunteers in churches – each of them has a voice worth listening to. Many senior leaders are poor listeners here. But we have to change. We must discern the difference between a complaint and a concern; a creative idea and a series of random thoughts; between fear-filled hesitancy and legitimate warnings and cautions.

If you get these wrong, you will make bad decisions, curtail performance and likely alienate the staff. The staff needs a place to process, dialogue and engage. Top-down management structures that simply “communicate and delegate” tend to view resistance as rebellion, and caution as confrontation. You must not bow to these misinterpretations.

Listen to your staff and core volunteers, but do not fear leading them. This really can be a “both/and” venture.

The Owner’s Voice

If you are not at the top of the organization or if you have to please outside owners (shareholders, boards, large donors, founding pastors, business owners and – yikes – family members of business owners!), you have some listening to do. And you have to be wise and shrewd when engaging the conversation.

Senior Leaders Empowering Young Leaders

Young, Restless and Eager to Lead

I have spent a couple months into my new role as a Professor at Trinity International University, TIU. Working with both graduate students and freshmen every week is a refreshing change. There is a great interplay between rigorous study and practical engagement. Many are more than students – they are rising young leaders in business, the arts, education, the sciences and in churches.

And they are restless. I think I understand why.

Few seasoned or senior leaders are providing significant opportunities to young leaders, emerging leaders. Some of us are concerned with job security, while others have intolerably large egos and cannot imagine our company, school or church without us. We are filled with fear – of failing, giving away power and authority to less experienced people, or just of an unpredictable personal future. So we tighten our grip in an era when we should be letting go.

I spoke with a young leader yesterday. Thankfully, his work environment is free from the oppressive hierarchy that strangles the creativity and risk-taking potential of many organizations. He works in a flatter environment where young leaders have real responsibility, make strategic decisions, take accountability seriously and have the freedom to fail. His CEO continues to put real leadership into the hands of an emerging generation.

Sadly, this is more rare than a warm February in Chicago.

Granted, many younger leaders need mentoring, instruction and input. Others need basic skills for self-leadership and better work habits.

But young leaders have heart, ideas and skills.  If we will simply empower and equip them, instead of just delegating work to them, or treating them as mere implementers of the senior leader’s strategy, perhaps there is hope.

If you are over 55, it’s time to move on. No, not time to move out…time to move on. I was part of an organization that does not understand the difference. The senior leader is forcing older leaders to move out in order to cut save on salaries and make room for younger, inexpensive staff.

Wrong move.

I am watching decades of experience, wisdom, insight and leadership savvy go out the door. A younger generation is taking over – which is the right outcome. But it is the wrong process. Many young leaders need the guidance, mentoring, and partnership of older, wiser leaders.  But they are few to be found.

The senior leader is in his 60’s and cannot imagine not removing himself from leadership for at least another 5-10 years. How ironic. It is a sad and fascinating study in the hoarding of power, the wasting of needed experience, and the devaluing of wise, faithful people. The organization is getting weaker at almost every level.

If you are in your 50’s it is time to re-invent yourself and re-invest your leadership. It’s time to share the risk-taking, involve young leaders in the strategizing, empower them to administrate, share the speaking platform, open some seats on the board, and put some real money into young hands so they can build the future together.

It is time to step aside – but not away.

It is counter-intuitive because this requires you to begin secession planning at your peak (50-55-ish), not 10 years or 20 years later. If you wait too long the younger leaders move on to real leadership opportunities. They tire of watching from the sidelines and of getting in the game with only 1:30 left to play.

It’s time for older players to hang up their cleats and do some coaching because we need great coaches. But that means older players will have to walk over to the sidelines and change uniforms—at half time, not when the game is almost over.

Truth is, you either move aside or you fade away.

Young leaders are amazing – I see them, teach them, learn from them, and long to empower them every week. I have focused my new work on sharing my expertise and time with younger leaders. And I get energized from them.

Oh, I am still very much in the game.  But I am more of a player-coach now, and moving rapidly into a permanent coaching role.

And I am having a blast!

Running in Circles – A Leadership Reality Check

Running in Circles – A Leadership Reality Check

“What kind of organization are we?” asked a supervisor I had over 20 years ago. After sitting in silence for about 20 seconds a confused team member replied, “What do you mean?” I knew he was asking us to put on a business or organizational development hat for a moment. So to use organizational or business language I was thinking, “We are in the life-transformation business.” But something told me that was not what he was fishing for.

How would you answer such a question? Would your leaders expect an answer like, “We are in the people business,” or “We are in the event business” or “We manufacture custom auto parts,” or “We are a hospital – so naturally we are a health care organization or a service organization.”

“Let me tell you what I think,” he continued. “We are really three organizations in one. And we have to know where our emphasis is at any given time without compromising the other two.” And then he went on to draw three overlapping circles where we “run” and spend energy, and then explained the relationships.

Corporation: Every organization has a “corporate” component. It involves staffing issues, property, insurance, governance structure, board relationships, reports, compliance issues, tax concerns, facilities, and other “institutional” components. The Corporation is where the responsibility lies for effectiveness and efficiency.

Cause: Every organization has a reason for existing – to feed the poor, to manufacture office furniture, to build a library, etc. The Cause has the potential to inspire the passion and focus of the organization.

Community: Every organization has people or impacts people or thrives based on relationships with people. Inside the organization that means a healthy relational environment for staff.

Now here’s the challenge

Some people just think “cause” and some focus on “community” and others are “corporation” intensive. Each has its place, purpose and essential focus. But they NEVER function in isolation from one another – each must consider the other two areas of focus or an organization can falter or fail.

Many businesses tend to focus on Cause and Corporation. Get it done and get it right. People are important but we can always get new ones or better ones. After all, this is why we call it “work” – it is not supposed to be fun and chummy. We are here to get a job done.

Care-oriented non-profits are often heavy on Cause and Community. Passion for people and a strong sense of camaraderie drive the organization. Volunteers love to work in these environments, and people give money based on the relationship they have with the leaders and the cause for which they stand. But the neglect of the Corporation aspect can be their Achilles heel. Such places can be characterized by lack of strategic focus, poor money management, wasted resources, staff and volunteer burnout, and incompetent management.

Government agencies can struggle because they focus on Community and Corporation (in this case, the government structure, hierarchy, rules and regulations). As a result, the Cause suffers.

Name the tension and be wise

To live in 1 or 2 circles for too long is short-sighted. While it is essential to focus on a given circle for a season, you cannot live there. Ok, you need three months to reorganize the HR department so that people are valued and served – great! But you cannot lose your relationship with clients or the people you serve while doing so.

As leaders, we live in the center (L) where all three circles overlap. Our job is to determine when we need to move from that place into one or two of the arenas for seasons of emphasis or focus. But we must never lose sight of the whole. Be diligent to train staff and volunteers to know which circle(s) they “live in” most of the time, while making them keenly aware of the whole picture. Keeping all 3 in mind will prevent becoming too corporate, blindly mission-driven, or too self-centered.

So which circles are you running in these days?