Applying the Wilderness Path to EGL and me

This post was written in early July and sent out to 7 Paths e-letter subscribers. Unfortunately we had some website problems that delayed posting it this blog. But here it is!


Something has been amiss, regular readers of my e-letters, will have noted. Since the beginning of 2013 my e-letters on leadership and fundraising have been sparse.


That’s because since January 2 I have been struggling with recurring lung infections that have led to four hospitalizations, weeks of I-V antibiotics at home, and depleted energy.


When I was 16 I became disabled as the result of severe rheumatoid arthritis. In my late 20s the disease went into remission which made it possible for me to launch two careers, raise a family, and have an amazing life within the limitations of the damage done to my joints when the RA was active.


In the late 1990’s the RA began nagging me again and about the same time I was diagnosed with a rare genetic condition—alpha one antitrypson deficiency—that causes emphysema and sometimes liver issues.


By 2003, the year we launched Evergreen Leaders, I was on a medication that was controlling my RA but occasionally I began to get pneumonia. In 2009 I had nine lung infections, and in the fall of that year I sustained five compression fractures in my back, losing five inches in height.


In January of 2010 Mayo Clinic figured out a regimen that stopped the recurring lung infections. I used the six months it took to heal from the back compression fractures to write the first draft of Green Light Fundraising.


In January of this year the regimen Mayo had me on for my lungs stopped working. Even as the lung infections recurred, I kept thinking I would bounce back. I didn’t know whether this was my eternal optimism or denial.


I love the mission of Evergreen Leaders—to give other nonprofits money and leadership tools to transform lives. But by May I began to face that my health was preventing me from fulfilling my role in that mission and I began to doubt my ability to bounce back.


At the beginning of June, I approached the president of the EGL board, Tim Stair, shared my thinking, and suggested that the board and I needed to discuss a reduced role for me and explore how to involve others in carrying out the mission.


Tim will be leading a planning retreat on July 13 involving the board as well as a few advisers from the nonprofit world to address my role and the future of EGL


Of course, I have trepidation about my role changing.


The 7 Paths of Thriving Organizations is a set of tools we use at Evergreen Leaders to teach people how to help their organizations thrive.


The Wilderness Path helps me understand what is happening in my life and in Evergreen Leaders:


Wilderness Path Principle:

Thriving organizations take periodic journeys into the wilderness to discover new ways to produce the treasure.

Wilderness Path Paradigm: 

Shriveling:    Aimless and rigid organizations both shrivel.

Thriving:    We combine continuous, short plans with periodic, long journeys into the unknown to discover new ways to produce the treasure.


The Wilderness Path Principle and Paradigm describe perfectly what is needed at this moment in my history and the history of Evergreen Leaders. We need to take a journey into the unknown to discover a new way for EGL to produce the treasure of carrying out its mission and to discover a new role for me to be part of producing the treasure.


Despite my trepidation, I am looking forward to a deep dive into the unknown on July 13 as the EGL board, advisers and I discover a new way to produce the treasure for the nonprofits we serve.


Wisdom for the week: The thriving organization periodically recreates itself to do a better job of producing the treasure.

The pluses and minuses goals

Hiking ( by Moyan Brenn ( Used by permission of Moyan Brenn through Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

How are you doing on your 2013 goals?


It’s confession time. I didn’t do very well on my 2012 goals.


In December I reviewed the five goals I had set in January 2012 for my work with Evergreen Leaders. I missed all five goals. With some of them I made good progress, but I couldn’t declare victory on any of them.


Over the holidays I read To Lead Is To Serve: How To Attract Volunteers And Keep Them by Shar McBee. It’s small book on leading volunteers and it’s packed with great quotes and wisdom.


McBee says that Thomas Edison made 10,000 attempts to invent the light bulb. Someone asked him, “How did it feel to fail 10,000 times?” He replied, “I did not fail. I learned 10,000 ways that it would not work.”


Taking a page from Thomas Edison’s playbook, when I wrote my report to the Evergreen Leaders board on my 2012 goals, I asked, “What did I learn?”  In asking that simple question, I used the lessons from missing the goals to prepare myself for setting goals for 2013.


I’m a person who has always enjoyed setting big, hairy audacious goals and then achieving them. So it was a humbling experience for me to set a series of challenging goals and not meet them.


Since I was struggling with goals, I was more open to learning about the negative side of goal-setting. For instance, I came across a TED talk online by Derek Sivers. He indicated that brain research shows that when you tell someone your goal, and they acknowledge it, your brain feels good, and you are less likely to work hard to achieve the goal. “The mind is tricked into feeling it is already done,” Siver says.


Then recently I listened to a podcast called “The 5 Reasons Most Goals Don’t Work and What to Do About It” by Mary Lyn Miller. Miller pointed out that huge goals trigger a fear response in our brains.


Huge goals, she says, upset our ways of doing things and our brains try to get us back to normal by shutting out the threat of the audacious goals. Miller is a coach and she recommends her clients think about huge goals once a year and then break the huge goals into small steps that do not threaten their brain.


I found her suggestion very interesting because I practice what she teaches. Every so often I set huge goals and then each day, during my morning quiet time, I set three small goals to accomplish that day, tiny goals that connect with one of my big goals


For a while I tried keeping a long to-do list but I found that depressing because I could never complete the list. It was like playing a basketball game with no clock. It started out fun but when the game never ended, I felt like I was losing all the time.


Setting three goals a day made it possible for me to win most days. And over time, three little steps a day add up in miles toward a big goal.Failing to meet my goals for 2012 didn’t stop me from setting goals for 2013 and beyond.


Go to the mountain top to set your big goals for 2013 and then head down the mountain to slog through tiny goals—sweating, and grateful to everyone who helps you along the way


Wisdom for the week: Set big, hairy audacious goals like a 1000 mile walk and then focus on the next step.


Note: This e-letter was adopted from a column originally published in the Bureau Valley Chief.

Shred your persistent complaints

shred persistent complaints

Shred your persistent complaints You will create more bandwidth for organizational decision-making.

People lead from the inside out.


That includes me.


As I approach the end of 2012 I’ve been reflecting on two posts I wrote at the end of 2010 and the start of 2011.


In 2010 I had gone through a frustrating time as a leader.


As I recounted in the post at the end of that year, “Farewell to persistent complaints from 2010”, while on a retreat I faced the fact that I was holding persistent complaints against several people in an organization I was leading.


In The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan describe persistent complaints as taking up mental bandwidth in an organization.


It’s tough to lead from the inside out when your mental bandwidth is clogged with persistent complaints.


In the January 2011 post, “Beyond persistent complaints”, I gave an example from The Three Laws of Performance where Steve Zaffron helped a Harvard group of professors, on a two-day retreat, list their complaints about each other and then move beyond those complaints to a new way of seeing each other.


A good friend of mine read the posts and wrote me to caution me about moving persistent complaints from the unsaid to the said in an organization.” He thought it would lead to more conflict.


Since I didn’t have the luxury of Steve Zaffron as a consultant, I wondered whether I could pull off leading the group in moving persistent complaints from unsaid to said.


Rather than asking everyone in the group to acknowledge their persistent complaints, I decided to experiment by dropping my own complaints about some of the others in the organization and see how this played out in the group.


As I said in the 2010 post, “Leaders are not immune from taking up mental bandwidth with persistent complaints about others in their organizations. Those complaints clog up the organization’s decision-making but they can be re-written which opens up space for change and creativity in an organization.”


Now it’s nearly two years later and I can see the results on my experiment.


When I dropped my complaints there weren’t immediate results.


A few months later the group that had spent nearly two years spinning its wheels, agreed to a major proposal, re-envisioning the organization.


Once I had dropped my persistent complaints, I had been able to freely engage in the re-envisioning.

Wisdom for the week: Leaders who drop persistent complaints, lead from the inside out.


Photo: Librarian Humor by sylvar. Used by permission of sylvar through Creative Commons, some rights reserved.

Beyond persistent complaints

Note: I wrote this post in January of 2011, sent it to my e-mail list, but forgot to post it on this blog. It’s worth reading, if I do say so myself.

In the last issue, I focused on clearing up persistent complaints I had been harboring about others in an organization I’m a part of. Persistent complaints clog up an organization’s decision-making and that’s why it is important to move beyond persistent complaints.  


Here’s an example condensed from The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan:


A group of six scholars in the Harvard Business School, led by Michael Jensen, had been researching and teaching new ideas about how firms, in many cases, actually destroy wealth. They were, in their own words, a group of rogue scholars.


            After some years of being “renegades” the school presented them the opportunity to become a formal faculty unit.


 We had been stuck in the mud, with the complications of a renegade group, that wasn’t part of the formal organization for years. We were having a hard time “coming in from the cold.” We weren’t sure we wanted to be a sanctioned unit. We enjoyed being renegades and throwing intellectual hand grenades.


            When the group met with Steve in July 1997 they listed many outcomes that would make their initial two days together surpass their expectations.


            In the meeting, Steve asked them to list out their persistent complaints about each other—beginning to probe the unsaid.


            Salter was the first to speak. He said that he and Jensen were friends and colleagues and that he had immense respect for Jensen’s work. He added with a slight smile that “Mike is sometimes headstrong and doesn’t listen.” He said it as though he was saying something that was descriptively true.


            Steve pointed out that persistent complaints, by their very nature are not descriptive of anything, although they are real as complaints. Here’s what happened:



Salter: What do you mean, my complaints aren’t true? I love Michael but he’s headstrong and doesn’t listen; ask anyone.

Steve:  That’s a complaint you have against Michael, right?

Salter: Yes.

Steve:  The nature of a complaint is that something should not be the way it is.

Salter: Right, Michael should not be as headstrong as he is, and he should listen.

Steve:  That’s your complaint about Michael; it’s not Michael. It’s actually a judgment about Michael.

Salter: Yes, that’s my judgment about Michael.

Steve:  It’s a real complaint, but it’s not a real description of the facts about Michael.

Salter: Oh, [long pause], I don’t know.

            Given that it was late in the day, Steve added, “Just think about it overnight, OK?”

The next morning Salter walked in smiling about some insight he had developed. “I thought about our conversation all night,” he said excitedly, “and you’re right. It’s just a persistent complaint! I realized there are times when Michael has listened, obviously, and even when he doesn’t, my complaining about it makes no difference.”

Salter saw something of profound importance for performance. When something is lurking in the unsaid, it has the flavor—the occurrence—of being descriptively true. But it’s nothing more than language—constructed and changeable.

Further Salter saw that this bit of language in the unsaid was blinding him to behavior that contradicted it. Through the act of moving the persistent complaint from the unsaid to the said, where it could be seen and discussed for what it was, his relationship with Jensen was elevated—or in Salter’s words, “created clarity and openness of a new kind, accelerating the learning process of the team. Once he saw the complaint for what it was, Salter could build a stronger relationship with Jensen, in which he could make new requests to address his original concern. Salter elevated his ability to be an engaged partner in the relationship. All this movement began with the linguistic equivalent of clearing out the closet.

pp. 51-54


            For years they had been stuck as a non-faculty unit. After their two-day consultation where they move the unsaid, persistent complaints, into the said, they were able to commit to developing a strategy to create a new faculty unit. One month later they met and fulfilled that commitment. Today they are one of the strongest faculty units at Harvard Business School.

Carefully moving persistent complaints from the unsaid to the said in an organization can create a clean slate for committing to and planning together a better future for that organization.


Wisdom for the week: Clearing out the closet of 2010’s persistent complaints is a great way for an organization to prepare to be creative in 2011.

3 Lessons in Leadership from my Father

My 88 year-old father just returned to a nursing home after being in the hospital with pneumonia.  He’s had a tough last year and we don’t know how long he will be with us.


When I was growing up I never thought of my Dad as a leader. Leaders were people who didn’t know how to do the actual work and made life miserable for those who did. This was the attitude I absorbed from the working class people I grew up with.


I thought of Dad as a struggling farmer, understandable since he and Mom were raising ten children on 440 acres in the Great Bog of northern Minnesota. I was third from the oldest.


I was an adult and had left home before the farm produced enough income to support my parents and my younger siblings who were still at home. All the time while I was home Dad worked other jobs as well as farming.


And yet, as I have been teaching leaders for nearly a decade, and have reflected on leadership, I’ve realized that my father quietly demonstrated three powerful lessons in leading.


First, leaders do their homework. In the early 1960’s almost all of our neighboring farmers left their farms for factory jobs because they couldn’t make enough money.


Dad wasn’t making enough money either. Instead of quitting, he went to the local Farmers Home Administration office to explore the possibility of a loan to buy more dairy cows. The FHA official pointed out that Dad’s barn was built to house less than ten cows. If he was going to purchase more cows, he needed a larger barn.


Even though Dad had only an 8th grade education, he did his homework, studying the latest research on dairy barns. Then he designed a barn that was one of the most advanced in Minnesota.


Second, leaders take risks. Dad took out a loan from the FHA and built the barn. For a man who would eventually have ten children, taking out a loan to build a barn was a risk. But if he was going to have enough income to feed those ten children, he needed to take the risk.


Third, leaders persist. When Dad finished building the new barn, he went back to the FHA office to borrow money to purchase milk cows. Unfortunately, the FHA official Dad had worked with on building the barn had retired, and the new, young official refused to loan him money to buy more cows.


He had a huge new barn, mostly empty because he had so few cows. Dad persisted. He bought heifer calves, raised them into milk cows, and then bred those cows and slowly built up the herd. By the time he retired he was milking over sixty cows.


I love my Dad and am grateful for all he has given our family, including lessons on leadership.


Wisdom for the week: Leaders do their homework, take risks, and persist through the inevitable setbacks.

3 Ways to Reduce Fear in Your Organization

My wife, Sarah, who works as a nurse in a retirement center, recently went to a training program on Alzheimer’s. The trainer said that people who are experiencing memory loss often need to be reassured that they will be safe.


When Sarah recounted to me the trainer’s comment, she said that she has often observed that people with memory loss are unable to articulate that they are afraid. They will simply act upset. She has begun to reassure them when she sees they are upset.


In my forty plus years in a variety of leadership positions (nonprofit, business, church and governmental), I can’t ever remember someone saying to me, “I’m afraid. I need to be reassured.”


I can remember many people acting upset.


That got me thinking about how leaders can reassure people and create a sense of safety for the people in their organization.


Most nonprofit and business leaders are aware that they need to address legal and safety issues related to Workers Compensation, sexual harassment, and discrimination.


But safety goes beyond these legal issues.


Here are three ways leaders can create a sense of safety in the work place.


First, create a clear decision-making process.


Plow Creek Fellowship, our Mennonite community has had a commercial farming operation since the early 1980’s. Recently it became clear that those involved in the farm were feeling isolated and uneasy when it came to decision-making. We created a decision-making group involving two PCF members and two of the farmers and it’s working much better.


People feel unsafe when they don’t know:


  • how decisions are made;
  • if they have the authority to make a decision;
  • or who has the authority to  make a decision.

People feel safe when decisions are made clearly and consistently.


Second, make sure everyone can pass along information to the leaders.


I’m president of our local library district who is considering a building project. A couple weeks ago, our librarian and several trustees visited another library that was completing a new building. We asked lots of questions and then one of our trustees asked, “What other suggestions do you have for us?” A staff member from the new library was walking by and she said, “Involve the staff in the planning.”


Leaders are not smart enough to make good decisions without the input of everyone in the organization. Everyone does not need to be involved in every decision but everyone needs to have a way to pass along information to leaders.


The maintenance people at Penn State knew that one of the football coaches was abusing boys but they didn’t feel safe enough to pass that information on to the University’s leaders.


Make it safe for everyone to pass information along to the leaders and you will have a safer organization.


Third, manage your own fears.


Recently I heard an interview with two surgeons. The interviewer asked if they ever had moments in the operating room when they didn’t know what to do. The older of the surgeons said, “Yes, and the most important thing is to control your own fear so you don’t pass it along to the rest of the operating room.”


All of us, including leaders, have fears. If we manage our fears, we don’t pass them along to others. An organization doesn’t feel safe when anxiety, rumor and drama are being passed around like a hot potato. You want to be the leader who will listen to the fears of others and be able to offer reassurance.


Wisdom for the week: Make your organization a safe place to do good work.

The Compass of a Prepared Leader

Recently my wife listened to Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, mostly as she worked in our kitchen, allowing me to hear bits and pieces.


In his comeback to Apple in 1997, Steve Jobs replaced a CEO who was not prepared and lost his way and his job.

Steve Jobs co-founded Apple in 1976 and in 1985 he was fired by the Apple board of directors. Jobs went on to found two other companies including NeXt while Apple slowly went downhill.


Early in 1997, Apple purchased NeXt for its operating system and Jobs came back to Apple as an advisor. A couple of people warned Gil Amelio, who had become Apple CEO a year earlier, that he would lose his job to Jobs.


A few weeks after Jobs came back to Apple, the company held its annual Macworld Expo and the CEO and Jobs both spoke at the event. Amelio was not prepared and his rambling presentation was in sharp contrast to Jobs who was a natural on stage.


I found myself embarrassed for Amelio. How could he have not prepared for this crucial Apple event? A few months later the Apple board fired Amelio and Jobs agreed to be the interim CEO.


In June Evergreen Leaders published Green Light Fundraising, in paperback and in July we did a reception and book signing at a local library. When a friend saw the notes for my 20-minute talk, she said, “You don’t need notes; you wrote the book.”


I had notes because I didn’t want to ramble. Who wants to follow a leader who rambles? Once I started speaking I hardly glanced at them but I was prepared in case I needed them.


Wisdom for the week: A leader who is not prepared is like a leader without a compass.

4 ways to calm yourself, leader

When threatening waters swirl around your organization, calming yourself like the egret in this photo, will help others in the organization calm down too, and together you can address the issues clearly and creatively.

Several months ago I finished reading Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Relationships by Roberta M. Gilbert, M.D. In her book the author notes that families and organizations react to threatening situations in five typical patterns:

  1. conflict (we argue & fight),
  2. distance (we keep out of each others’ way);
  3. cut off (we have nothing to do with each other; in the workplace that’s called firing or take this job and shove it);
  4. triangles (we have tension between us but we talk to a 3rd person);
  5. and over-functioning and under-functioning (one of us is strong and capable one while the other is the weak, helpless one).


Recently an organization I am part of had someone commit a major deception, giving me a firsthand experience of how fear can race through an organization.


Calming yourself when something shocking has happened in your organization is easier said than done. And yet it’s an essential part of leading people to make a healthy response to the shock.


Before getting to the four ways to calm yourself, I want to point out the exception. If the situation is an emergency, you don’t want to calm yourself, you want to act immediately. If a fire breaks out, pull the fire alarm.


The emotional part of our brain often has difficulty distinguishing between an emergency and a non-emergency. When you witness a trusted, highly productive colleague sneak a drink on the job or a have major funder slash your funding, your brain will scream “fire” but it’s not a fire and you need to calm yourself to think through how to handle the situation.


Here are four ways to calm yourself:


First, journal every morning. I have kept a journal for 35 years. When a distressing event happens at work or in my family, I describe the event in my journal and write out my thoughts and emotional response to the event. This has a calming effect. If it’s a major event, I’ll journal about it for several days or even several weeks. Eventually, as I journal, I move beyond reacting and possible actions or solutions begin to emerge.


Two, talk to a trusted adviser outside the organization. It’s very calming to be able to describe the distressing situation to someone not caught up in the anxiety inside the organization as people react to the perceived threat. A trusted advisor can often see the situation clearly and give good advice.


Three, connect with people who love you. When something knocks an organization off balance, it puts stress on relationships in the organization. There’s nothing more calming than connecting with family and friends. Being with them can take your mind off the situation, give you a sense of normalcy, and, when you return to thinking about the issue, you will be calmer and able to think more clearly.


Four, read spiritual writings. Ancient spiritual writings help us name our experiences and give us hope, both of which calm us. As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, recently an organization I am part of had to deal with a very likeable person who was involved in a major deception. A few days later I read a phrase in scripture that caught my attention, “Death has climbed in through our windows and has entered our fortresses,” and that captured how invaded I felt.


Then a day later I read, “I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth.” It was calming to say to myself, there will be a way to exercise kindness, justice and righteousness in this situation.


I expect you have discovered other ways to calm yourself. I’d love to hear ways that work for you.


Wisdom for the week: Calm yourself, leader, because calming yourself leads others to become calm and able to join you in clear thinking and creative solutions.

On mistakes and unmet expectations

To thrive, organizations and leaders need to deal with two facts of life. Humans make mistakes. And humans have unmet expectations in their relationships.


Here’s an example of a mistake. After I led my first capital campaign meeting with volunteers my mentor asked me if I had an agenda for the meeting. “No,” I said. I knew in my head what I needed to accomplish in the meeting.


“That’s a mistake,” he said. “You always need to have a printed agenda for meetings with volunteers.” He pointed out that an agenda makes it possible for those in the meeting to see at a glance what needs to be accomplished and to gauge progress during the meeting.


I never made that mistake again.


Here’s an example of an unmet expectation. When Sarah, my wife, is home I expect her to make lunch. She enjoys cooking and I enjoy eating her food. It’s been a winning combination in our 38 years of marriage. For 36 years when noon rolled around and, if she was home, she made me lunch.


Then a few years ago she began working the evening shift and I began to stay up later to spend time with her when she came home from work. As a consequence I ate breakfast later.


Then I began to notice that it was early afternoon and I was hungry and Sarah hadn’t made lunch. This is an unmet expectation.


We talked about it and I discovered a new piece of information. She no longer knew when I would be ready for lunch. Since I was eating breakfast a 9:00 or 10:00, she could no longer count on me being hungry at noon.


We made a simple change in our routine. I would let her know when I was ready for lunch.


Recently I was drafting an agreement for Evergreen Leaders working with associates and I decided to think through how we could address the inevitable mistakes and unmet expectations that will occur between Evergreen Leaders, Associates, and Clients.


In the draft I included three simple rules for handling mistakes and missed expectations:


  1. No dodging mistakes. When we make a mistake, let’s humbly admit it, which builds trust.
  2. Speak up. In any relationship there will be expectations that are not met. Speak to the person who is not meeting your expectations. Expect your colleagues to speak to you when you do not meet their expectations. Listen to each other and take in new information which builds trust.
  3. Drop persistent complaints.  Grudges are a drag on a relationship while forgiveness frees and builds trust.


I don’t know that these three rules are perfect and we’ll likely improve them over time; however, including them in the agreement will make it possible for us to have a common language for dealing with mistakes and unmet expectations.


Wisdom for the week: Talking about unmet expectations can lead to new ways of meeting expectations.