Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Understanding The Trough Of Chaos

For many leaders, the hardest part in the journey of organizational change is the Trough of Chaos. Given it is a difficult, uncomfortable, and deeply challenging time period, many organizations and people get stuck within its complexity.  Still, once they understand that there are four stages that people go through within the Trough of Chaos Stage, they often gain perspective and hope to keep moving forward.

The first stage in the Trough of Chaos is called “The Preservation Stage”. At this point in the journey, most employees are simply unaware of the larger change process that is underway within the organization because they are doing their job on a daily basis. What little, if any, information that does cascade down from senior management about strategic change is often ignored as unimportant or not realistic. For the most part, employees are focused on preserving a past definition of success as well as preserving a pattern of work which is comfortable and efficient. Unaware and, in reality, unknowing, they just keep on keeping on in product and service delivery.

However, when senior management does finally explain to everyone what is going to change at the strategic and operational levels, it is common for employees during this stage of the journey to feel like they have been completely blind sided by the information and overwhelmed. With a lack of orientation that connects to the strategic nexus, no clear executable priorities, and no structure to what happens next, employees act like deer in the headlights, shocked, sacred, and desperately trying to return to their old and balanced way of work and life. Nevertheless, with constant communication, training, and periods for strategic dialogue, they come to realize that strategic change is not going to go away, and thus they move in to stage two in the Trough of Chaos.

The second stage is called “The Loss Stage.” At this point in the journey, employees are grieving the loss of the familiar in systems, structure, and culture.  It is normal for them to want to try to preserve familiar ways of doing things based on an older description of success, because the old way had meaning, purpose, and gave employees’ a sense of identity.  

As their normal routines become obsolete due to strategic and subsequent operational changes, employees also become more and more resistant to change and may become dissatisfied with the new product and service delivery methods. Furthermore, it is common for employees to Tarzan swing from “there is no way this is going to work” to “OK, are we done yet?” With a focus on doing it the “right” or “proper” way in order to not get blamed for mistakes, employees are deeply frustrated and struggling.

This stage ends as employees come to understand what will and what will not change. As they become familiar with the new patterns of work, they also regain some confidence and clarity about their new roles. Gradually, there is a degree of acceptance, understanding, and a renewed sense of purpose and meaning.

The combination of these factors propels employees into the third stage of the Trough of Chaos called “The Discovery Stage”. As individuals and teams begin to work together in new ways, there is great deal of energy, focus, and intensity in the work place. People come together and collaborate on projects about new and better ways to do product and customer service delivery. Creative problem solving surfaces and positive momentum starts to take place.

The challenge of this stage is that people often start heading out in all sorts of new directions and some people even want to change more things.  Without clear goals and priorities, or a better utilization of the strategic nexus, this time can often result in creative and overwhelming chaos. People often burnout as they try to do too much too fast. Brainstorming can be infectious, but not realistic.

This stage ends as more and more people come to understand how the organization’s new strategy connects to the organization’s vision, mission and core values. And as more and more people have the “Aha Moment” when they see the whole, the context for strategic change and how the new strategy helps the organization move through that context, and the parts, i.e. the interrelationship between the vision, mission and core values and the redesign of people’s roles, systems, structure and culture, then a new depth of commitment is born.  People not only want to move forward but also take a greater degree of responsibility for collective success.

The fourth and final stage within the Trough of Chaos is called “The Commitment Stage”. It is clear from the work done in the previous stage that employees are now beginning to get settled into a new pattern of work and are focused on specific short and long term goals. Not only are they showing responsibility and seeing change as a positive event with possibilities, they have regained a clear vision of where the organization is going and why this direction is important.  Because they are now able to once again control things that are important to them, they are more willing to be accountable and approach solving problems in a collaborative and healthy manner.

We also note in this stage that as their commitment and productivity grows, so does their competency and willingness to manage and lead projects and teams. People not only want to get things done, but they also want their team to function better and better. This combination of a commitment to decisions, goals and objectives along with the rise of accountability for carrying through on these plans builds discipline and persistence, two keys to sustainable action.

When we recognize the role and the importance of a strategic nexus during organizational change, we create a foundation for success. When we understand the stages and complexity of a sigmoid curve, and the eighteen month journey of change, we build a framework for maintaining perspective. Finally, when we realize that the Trough of Chaos is a normal part of this journey, we regain hope, courage, and confidence that we can turn a vision into reality.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Letter To A Burned Out Leader


It happened. You did your best. And now you are feeling burned out by circumstances outside your control or influence. The outcome is that you have nothing left in the tank. You have come to the place where you are overwhelmed and feeling empty. In short, life has become nothing more than a meaningless process of getting stuff done at work, and then spending more time numbing yourself at home from the uncertainty and the struggle of it all.


Peter Drucker in an article called “What is Our Business?” from the June 2001 issue of Executive Excellence magazine shared two important insights about being a leader. First, “The executive’s time tends to belong to everybody else.” And everybody and anybody can move in on your time and eventually does. Dealing with interruptions is normal and very difficult. It often is part of why leaders burn out. Second, “Executives are forced to keeping “operating” unless they take positive action to change the reality in which they live.” This is hard to do. Often, the flow of events around us can determine the priorities before us.

From my experience, we end up burning out because we are suffering from the convergence of task fatigue where there are more things to get done than hours in the day, decision fatigue where everyone one is wanting us to make a decision and we are dealing with tons of ambiguity and incomplete information, confidentiality fatigue where we carry the burden of knowing too much that we can not share, compassion fatigue where there are too many things and too many people to care for, and finally change fatigue where everything is supposed to be innovative, agile and resilient and nothing seems to work according to the plan. 

The outcome of all of this fatigue is exhaustion and burnout. It just keeps coming and we are completely stressed out. As Brene’ Brown wrote in her book, Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience (Random House, 2021): “We feel stressed when we evaluate environmental demands as beyond our ability to cope successfully. This includes elements of unpredictability, uncontrollability, and feeling overloaded.”

I have been there personally and professionally. I have also taught people about how to deal with this, and I have coached people on how to move through this. In the beginning, we must recognize that there are no quick fixes when we are experiencing this level of burnout and exhaustion. There are, however, pathways to recovery and restoration. What follows are six key insights to finding a new way of working and living. They can be a catalysts for productive and sustainable change, and a road map to getting from where you are to where you want to be.

Manage Your Energy, Not Just Your Time

Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz in their book, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal (Simon & Schuster, 2003) wrote: “… managing energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance. Performance is grounded in the skillful management of energy.”  When I read this for the first time, it blew me away. I had spent hours on time management stuff and could not get it all to work. The usual outcome for me was that I felt defeated by too much to do and not enough time. However, with Loehr and Schwartz’s writing, it all fell into place.

First, I realized that I needed time to work which required great focus and energy. But I also needed to give myself permission to rest and recover from the focused work I was doing. 

Second, as Loehr and Schwartz pointed out, “full engagement requires drawing on four separate but related sources of energy: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.” I tended to only draw on one of the four and thus I needed to learn how to utilize the other three sources. This did not happen over night and was definitely a learning process. But with time, commitment, and discipline, I did get better at using all four sources.

Finally, Loehr and Schwartz note that “positive energy rituals - highly specific routines for managing energy - are the key to full engagement and sustained high performance.” I did not have any “energy rituals” at the time I read their work. Now, decades later, I realize I have figured them out and utilize them on a regular basis. They help me stay grounded and centered in the midst of my challenging and complex work.

Expand Your Network of Support

Being burned out is never easy or fun. A matter of fact, it just sucks. But over time, I come to agree with William H. McRaven in his book, Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations (Grand Central Publishing, 2020), who wrote about the life and work of Navy Seals. From a Navy Seals’ perspective, “… the only easy day was yesterday.” When all our yesterdays don’t feel easy, there is something all of us need to watch out for, namely the “two empty bucket syndrome.”

Many people come home from work, and expect their wife, husband, life partner, or friend to ease their pain and listen to their challenges as they unload about their day. The difficulty in this situation is that the other person may also have had a horrible day and they expect the person coming home to listen to them. As a result, both people are feeling empty and expecting the other to fill them. At moments like this, we realize that two empty buckets can not fill each other up. I routinely see this happening in the world of leadership, and all it ever does is lead to further burnout.

When I first started teaching stress management to people in highly stressful situations, I would remind workshop participants that they needed three people outside their family which they could call upon seven days a week for support and perspective. The reason I want this group of people to be non-family members is that these individuals can offer support and perspective that is not part of one’s daily living. 

Now, I encourage people, who are burning out or who have burned out, to expand their network of support to include a diverse group of allies and and confidants. Allies stand with us as we move through our pain. Confidants can listen and share without trying to fix us, our workplace, or our families. Sometimes, these are the same people and other times they are not.

In combination with an expanded network of support, I encourage people, who are burning out or who have burned out, to engage in routine exercise and health activities. For some, this looks like working out and breaking a sweat at the gym. Others garden. And some just take the dog for a walk. Whatever your choice, the goal is to work out the emptiness through exercise.

Finally, I recommend that people interrupt the two empty bucket syndrome by setting up regular, systematic connections. Years ago, this were called “date nights.” Each person in the relationship would choose an activity such as a dinner, movie, dance, or event, and the other would go along for the fun. The responsibility for organizing the event would rotate back and forth. For example, I know one couple who scheduled regular nights with their friends. They saw it as a community and network building opportunity. They called these “fajitas and margaritas dinners” and they rotated between all the different couples and houses.

From my observations, those leaders, who can handle a lot stress and avoid the two empty bucket syndrome, feel connected to those who they work with plus friends and families. These same individuals, who can handle a lot of stress, anxiety, and uncertainty, feel and believe that they belong to something important that is larger them themselves. Finally, in spite of these working conditions, they can still bring their authentic and imperfect selves to work and life. They do so, because they have people in their life who make it a safe and trustworthy place. 

The two empty bucket syndrome is real and painful, but with an expanded network of allies and confidants, we are able to move forward with grace and gratitude. It all comes down to a matter of maintaining perspective and support.

Think More About Your Career and Your Life Choices

It started during a lunch meeting when she shared with me that she was starting to burn out from the endless stream of operational details. She felt overwhelmed by the constant problems and finally encountered complete decision fatigue. The result was they she dreaded going to work on Monday mornings and routinely felt anxious, worried, and frustrated.

“If this is what leadership is all about,” she stated, “then I want nothing to do with it. Being a leader sucks.”

She then paused and looked out the window. After a moment or two, she turned and asked me an important question, “Should I apply for a new job?”

As an executive coach, I am asked this question on a regular basis. When one is experiencing burnout or dissatisfaction in a current job, a new job seems to be the best solution. And some times, it is the right choice. 

But I don’t instantly assume that switching jobs is the best choice. I have learned in life that while the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, one does not know if it is actually greener because it is a more healthy work environment or it is just greener because it is located over the septic tank. Therefore, when confronted with this question, I always start the discussion from a different place.

On this day, I paused for a moment and then said, “Will this make you a better mother, daughter, sister, or wife?”

She looked out the window of the restaurant one more time, and was silent for a bit.

I continued, “Once you have the “new” job, what will your whole life be like?”

From my experience, burned out leaders only look at their life through the job window. They do not look at their whole life, i.e. work, home, family and relationships. Sometimes a burned out leader isn’t just experiencing burnout at work. Sometimes, they are experiencing a burned out life. 

Having coached people for decades, I have witnessed that changing jobs did not always yield a less stressful life. At times, we forget the old adage that “wherever you go, there you are.” In simple terms, this means that if you don’t like your current circumstances, moving does not change everything. We all take our baggage with us.

“Indeed, the great paradox of change,” writes Jim Collins, “is that the organizations [and people] that best adapt to a changing world first and foremost know what should not change; they have a fixed anchor of guiding principles around which they can more easily change everything else.” By asking the question about whether or not one will become a better person as a result of a job change, I am asking the person to discover or rediscover the guiding principles of their life. With inner clarity of purpose, we can make career and life choices based on clarity rather than reactivity. 

And from this foundation, we can ask ourselves if we are coping with burnout, trying to prevent more burnout, or seeking to recover from burnout. Prevention requires awareness that burnout could be happening. Coping implies that the state of burnout has arrived or is imminent. Therefore, we deploy coping mechanisms, e.g. constructive strategies to reduce stress. But recovery and restoration is a different process. 

After many hours of reflection, I think the restoration pathway has many stages to it. I also recognize that each of us as people and as leaders start in different places along the path and move through the different stages of restoration at various speeds.  

While I wish I could clearly map out the whole restoration process, I do know a couple of things about restoration from my own personal experiences, from being an executive coach, and from visiting with people who are helping others along this path.

First, stoping to reflect is a critical stage. We need to pause and take stock. We need to step back and look at the whole of our life, at work and at home. We need to discern if we are living to our fullest potential and in a healthy manner.

Second, this act of reflection often results in a stage of remembrance and mourning. We have to grieve what we have lost and experience the normal but, at times, uncomfortable stages of grief that come with acknowledging these losses.

Third, we need to begin the process of learning and understanding new ways to work and live. This special time may include partnering with friends, coaches, and mentors who can offer perspective, insights, and support.

Finally, we need to give ourselves some grace along the way. We also must give ourselves permission to keep experimenting on how to live and work in a new and healthy manner. 

The restoration and recovery pathway is not linear. Instead it is a dynamic and iterative process where several of the steps can happen simultaneously and continuously. Still, I think it is critical that we prepare ourselves for this work and then commit to doing it.

As Confucius wrote so long ago, “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.” Now is the time to think more about our career and life choices. We always have the potential to create healthier new beginnings as we move forward. 

Reclaim What Matters Most

When I teach the From Vision to Action Leadership Training, I routinely ask participants the following question: “What do you do that matters the most?” I have come to the conclusion that we really don’t think about this question too often. I also believe that most answers are just knee jerk reactions rather than thoughtful responses. I think this happens because we have been scripted to meet unrealistic expectations. Sometimes, the answer to this question is created by us, and other days it is set set by others. 

When we are burned out as leaders, we often discover that we have tried to be all things to all people. This never works. Instead, we need to be clear about what it is that only we can do. We need to find, and hold on to what adds meaning to our life. So, the question, “What do I do that really matters the most?”, needs to also include thinking about the following new question, “What makes my life meaningful?”. It is the combination of the two that will generate perspective. 

“Don’t lose yourself in your role,” write Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Glasgow, and Marty Linsky in their article called “Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis”, Harvard Business Review, July-August 2009. As they explain, “Defining life through a single endeavor, no matter how important your work is to you and to others, makes you vulnerable when the environment shifts. It also denies you other opportunities for fulfillment.”

When I think about the question, “What makes my life meaningful?”, I think about cooking for my family, and then spending time with them over a good meal. I also think about making the world a more beautiful place through planting flowers and caring for them around our home, reading a good book and learning from it, and finally visiting with close friends. All of these things bring me joy, new insights, and meaning to my life journey.

As Ryan Holiday wrote in his book, Stillness Is The Key (Portfolio/Penguin, 2019), we “attend to our business because we need to matter, and we don’t always realize we already do.” Reclaim what matters most in your life and you will find pathways through the burnout you are experiencing.

Rediscover Your Thinking Space

“I’ve mastered the art of making myself unavailable when necessary,” John Maxwell in his book, How Successful People Think: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life (Center Street, 2009), “and going off to my ‘thinking place’ so that I can work without interruptions.” I am in agreement with John Maxwell about the importance of being unavailable at times and having a “thinking place.”

I believe there are three myths that cause leaders to burn out. The first myth is that the leader’s job is to come up with all of the answers. The second  myth is that it is the leader’s job to fix everything. And the final myth is that it is the leader’s job to get everything done before we give ourselves permission to rest. These self-imposed expectations are not realistic and are detrimental over time. They prevent us from thinking about what is happening all around us and within us. Instead, they push us into a pattern of always reacting to work and life’s challenges.

One of the many important steps to recovering from burnout is to rediscover our thinking space, i.e. a time and space for reflection where we can concentrate deeply and gain insights and perspective about what is happening. Cal Newport in his book,  Deep Work: Rules For Focused Success In A Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), notes that within this thinking place there is the opportunity to do “deep work.” Here, one can engage in “professional [and personal] activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

As I often remind clients, the harder and the faster you work, the more you need to slow down and reflect. This thinking time is mission critical to move forward in the challenging, dynamic and wildly unpredictable world we find ourselves at this time period.

The first step in rediscovering your thinking space is to schedule a time and to choose a place where you will not be interrupted. Next, once there, reduce or eliminate distractions. This means no social media and no texting. Third, define the problem or situation you want to think about. Fourth, schedule more time than you think you need, because one idea or solution may lead to another idea or solution. The goal here is to capture all of your thinking, not just the first idea that pops into your head. Finally, write down a summary of your thoughts for further exploration. 

As Brene’ Brown wrote in her book, Rising Strong: The Reckoning. The Rumble. The Revolution  (Spiegel & Grau, 2015): “We can’t be brave in the big world without at least one small safe space to work through our fears and falls.” Rediscovering your thinking space is one small, but important step in the journey to being a leader who has recovered from burnout.

Respect The Recovery Process

When we are burned out as leaders, recovery is a journey more than a destination. Our challenge is to respect the process of recovery. And this begins when we are accept that burnout happened. 

We do this in an active manner rather than with a passive shrug of the shoulder and a hint of denial or unimportance. Instead, as Brene Brown writes, we “embrace the suck.” We acknowledge the pain of burnout and the impact of burnout on our life and the lives of those around us. We may not understand how it all took place, but we know that it has, and that we need to move forward in a thoughtful manner.

We begin by finding safe, thinking places to process what happened. And we do this work with safe people. As Ron Heifetz, Alexander Glasgow, and Marty Linsky wrote in the aforementioned article, we need to “find sanctuaries where you can reflect on events and regain perspective.”

In these quiet, thinking spaces, we sit in silence, reflect, share, and slowly regain perspective. We take our foot off the accelerator and give ourselves permission to rest and recover. We unplug and slowly unwind the tension that we are carrying. We also do this with our allies and confidants.

I remember a Fall Executive Roundtable many years ago when Christina Smith, CEO of Community Support Advocates, shared that “our sacrifices must reflect our priorities.” When we fully embrace the recovery process and define our priorities, we must have the courage to begin something that we do not know how it will end. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “Faith is taking the first steps even when you don’t see the full staircase.”

Most people think this level of courage is about dreaming big new ideas. But from experience, the real challenge is to start the journey without fully knowing what will happen during the journey. Furthermore, to have the courage to not fully know the outcome or the destination.

As some of us have learned, the only way to recovery is through recovery. Along the way, there will be questions and there will be grief. It will not be linear. It will be messy. And this is all normal.

Finally, when we respect the recovery process, we have the opportunity to be humble and recognize that we stand on the shoulders of others, namely mothers, fathers, teachers and mentors. All of these people loved us and encouraged us in spite of their challenges and in spite of our own challenges. As Linda Hogan, Native American Chickasaw, pointed out: “You are the result of the love of thousands.”

For when we have courage and are humble, we will recover. We will open doors to new ways of living, working, and leading. And the results will be transformative for us and many other people.

© Geery Howe 2022

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, August 8, 2022

Change Is A Door

“Change is a door that can only be opened from the inside.” - Tom Peters

So many days right now, people try to get others to open that door through arguments or explanations, data or analysis. They pound on it, frustrated that others will not let them in. As a result, they feel hopeless because others will not join them in making change happen.

After decades and decades of consulting, coaching and teaching, I continue to point out something that Charles Fishman wrote a long time ago: “You can’t change the company without changing yourself.” This is the starting place for making change happen. It is not through more arguments, data points or analytics. It is actually doing the internal work yourself. 

As Mahatma Gandhi explained, “Our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as in being able to remake ourselves.” The first place to begin is to go inside. It begins with rebuilding and restoring one’s capacity to live the changes we seek, not just make others change. 

And one step in this process is to create safe spaces for other to open their doors and to join with us. As Charles Fishman noted, “The informal network is as powerful as the formal chain of command. And you get to design your informal network.” 

Starting today, do your own internal work, and build safe spaces for others to join you. Create an informal network of support so the door of change can be opened and remain open.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Tuesday, August 2, 2022

The Journey Of Organizational Change

Most people in executive positions struggle deeply with organizational change because they do not know the normal stages of the journey and what to expect along the way.

In the beginning, most people try to make organizational change a linear and logical line of progress. They envision the journey as a series of steps starting with the letter “A” and then clearly moving to “B”, “C” and so forth.  While this may make sense on paper, people and organizations are more dynamic. In reality, organizational change is continuous, repetitive, and strenuous with people being in several different stages at the same time depending on the issues and problems at hand.

Rather than thinking of it as a line, I point out that the journey of organizational change is more like a sigmoid curve. The vertical axis of this journey recognizes that the goal of organizational change is to move from one level of performance to a new and better level of performance. The horizontal axis focuses on time. The standard organizational change cycle takes approximately eighteen months to go from one level of performance to a new level of performance. The sum of strategic change takes, on average, five to seven years to implement and when done successfully, it is the combination of multiple sigmoid curves.

When a team, department or organization moves along the sigmoid curve, they pass through four stages. The first is the Pathfinding Stage which is about three months in length. This is the time period in organizational change when  executives in leadership positions get very excited. They have a new commitment to improving performance and often a sense of urgency to create a new level of alignment.  Regularly, they explore, define, and develop a new picture or vision for the future. They also generate a level of intensity and passion for this picture through in-depth sharing and engagement with senior executives and upper level management. 

Meanwhile, most employees are just working away at fulfilling the “old” picture of success, not the new one that upper management has just created. They are focused on making sure current systems are integrated, working, and generating consistent outcomes, be that in product or service delivery. Routinely, they are measuring performance and paying attention to key metrics.

After this three month period of finding a new path, senior management typically introduces to the whole of the organization a new way of working, plus a new set of priorities. Initially, employees may be excited and ride the wave of pathfinding, but quickly the whole organization dives into the Trough of Chaos Stage. This six to nine month time period is difficult for executives and employees because the old way of working has to be dismantled and a new way has to be built.  

As I have noted in this blog before, there are natural laws of leadership and change which must be observed. One of them is called The Law of Chaos, which states, “The world does not change through balance, order, and security, only through chaos.” As is evident in so many areas of our personal and professional lives, and as it has been proven through scientific experimentation and observation, the world does not change through balance, order and security -- only through chaos. Therefore, the Trough of Chaos Stage, while highly difficult, uncomfortable and deeply challenging, is a normal step in the journey.

Once the organization comes out of the Trough of Chaos Stage, executives and employees enter into a time period of unified focus and commitment. This three to six month period is called The Learning Curve. Here, all involved focus on defining and refining customer service behaviors, core delivery systems, and a further clarification of midlevel management’s roles, goals, expectations and priorities. This stage includes teaching, role modeling and significant praise, reward and recognition.

As momentum builds, we enter into the final stage of the journey which is the Systems Integration Stage. At this point, there is an increased credibility and validity for the change journey as systems, structure, and policy are integrated into a new culture and a new model of product and service delivery.  Executives and employees can articulate and advocate for the results that are being generated by the new model. Despite the pull of the traditional “old” way of working, last seen back at the beginning of the journey, executives and employees value now the consistency of successful results.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Monday, August 1, 2022

Hope Has Two Beautiful Daughters

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” - Saint Augustine

Goal setting season has begun for many leaders and their companies. It is a time to begin thinking about the future. People are reflecting on the way things are right now, and what has taken place so far in 2022. They also are exploring what might need to change so they and others are prepared for 2023 -2025. 

Hope, anger, and courage are all part of this process. People are angry about the way certain things have unfolded. They do not like current market conditions or supply chain challenges. They also are deeply frustrated about recruitment and retention issues plus the lack of work/life balance they are experiencing.

At the same time, people are finding their courage to make sure that things do not remain stuck in a perpetual trough of chaos or an endless sideways cyclone. Instead, they want to transform that anger into courage, and end up in the place hope.

As they explore what are the best choices to be made in their goal setting journey, I remind them of the insight that Michelangelo shared so long ago: “The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” If we are going to set goals, let’s make sure these goals actually make a difference in the lives of those served and those serving.

This week, and through out the coming weeks, let us all honor that hope has two beautiful daughters, anger and courage. We need them both if we are going to make this world a better place for all of us.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Importance of A Strategic Nexus

As with so many things these days, it all started with an e-mail .... “Our company has grown rapidly in the last five years, and we now provide services in 20 different geographical areas. Each demographic location has an Area President and the corporate office has several people who make up the Resource and Quality Improvement teams for the company. 


We are in the midst of developing a new Leadership Team, made up of both components plus our CEO, and 2 VPs. Currently, we seem to be having difficulty with defining leadership, and creating a safe and trusting environment in which to share our ideas.


I have suggested an outside facilitator and you were the first to come to come to mind.”

I had not heard from this person in over ten years so I called him up on the phone, listened to his concerns, and asked for a packet of core material, namely copies of their mission, vision and core values statements, a current organizational chart, and their most recent strategic plan. Given the parameters of this situation, I also requested a two hour meeting with just the CEO and the two Vice Presidents.

During the first onsite meeting, I listened to the CEO and the two VPs talk about the leadership team and their problems. Over the course of an hour and half, I asked the following four questions, the ones I always ask when helping organizations plan for change: 

- Who will lead?

- Where is the vision and who has it? 

- At what pace do you want to go?

- What should not be lost during the journey?

As we completed the fourth question, the CEO said “Enough with the chit chat and the questions. What is your diagnosis, Geery?”

I replied, “You have an S.D.D.”

He blanched at first because he thought I had said S.T.D. Once he had recovered, he asked “What is an S.D.D.?”

“It is a Strategic Deficit Disorder,” I responded. “The first problem is with your strategy. You have grown so fast that the top three people around this table are not in agreement or in alignment with the strategic direction or intent, and with the pace of change. 

Second, the organizational chart is a mess given each VP uses a different version, and each version has key people reporting to different people.

Third, there is no clear strategic nexus which everyone in the organization can utilize during the times when you are in the trough of chaos.”

There was a long pause in the room and both VP’s turned and looked at the CEO. He sat still for a moment, and then said “OK.... thank-you.  Now, how do we go about changing this situation for the better?”

And then the real journey of change began.

First, I explained the role of a strategic nexus. The word “nexus” comes from the Latin word nectere which means to bind. A nexus is the connection or key linkage that holds things and people together as they move through challenges. It not only holds them together but, when built right, can also become a source of focus and clarity.

A successful strategic nexus consists of two parts. The first is a core ideology made up of a well written vision, mission, and core values. The second is a well designed strategic plan with clear strategy, goals and metrics. When both pieces are integrated, the vision drives the strategy and the mission defines the focus of the strategy. When there also is a clear connection with the organization’s core values, the strategic nexus can generate some things that are very important when moving through the trough of chaos, namely strategic perspective, flexibility, and focus along with strategic responsibility and  accountability. 

I pointed out to the top three people that part of improving the current situation is to create an effective strategic nexus. This is not a paper exercise where people come together in a series of endless meetings, word smithing every letter and syllable to death. Instead, the creation of an effective strategic nexus begins when we realize that we are trying to create a strategic mindset through out the company where the nexus is not only understood but utilized. Ownership and understanding are mission critical, because once the two parts of the nexus are in place, then collaboration and commitment will expand.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Letter To A Young Leader


“Leadership is not about learning theory,” writes Larry Perlman, retired Chairman & CEO of Ceridian. “It’s about finding out how you are going to bring yourself into your work and into your life to make a contribution.”

So many times, a leader is defined by all the work that they get done, and the rewards they receive because of it. Rarely is leadership defined by how much an individual contributes to making the lives of others better, and as a responsibility. 

Some will tell you that being a leader involves command and control. The goal is to make the work place orderly and predictable. But this often ends up being about controlling people and systems which rarely results in positive momentum over time.

There is another way of working with people which focuses on making sure your daily actions and your personal core values are in alignment, and that you co-create with others a work environment that is empowering and meaningful. To follow this pathway, there are four key ideas one must understand in order to be a successful leader.

Common Language Builds Understanding And Clarity

I have spent my entire career listening and sharing with a wide diversity of people. Along the way, I have learned that words matter. As Krista Tippett wrote in her book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (Penguin Press, 2016): “I take it as an elemental truth of life that words matter. This is so plain that we can ignore it a thousand times a day. The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. From Genesis to the aboriginal songlines of Australia, human beings have forever perceived that naming brings the essence of things into being. The ancient rabbis understood books, texts, the very letters of certain words as living, breathing entities. Words make worlds.”

This is a profound truth. In the world of leadership and organizational change, words do make worlds. As a person new to the world of leadership, it is important to remember that words matter because they shape understanding and create clarity. And clarity is the foundation for success.

Stewardship Is As Important As Change

When one becomes a leader, we need to recognize that trust and stewardship are as important as personal effort and change. In reality, stewardship and organizational growth are not two different things. Instead, they are interconnected. Each needs the other, and stewardship is always the key to sustainable growth.

The dictionary defines stewardship as "the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one's care.” Author Peter Block defines stewardship as two things, namely “to hold in trust the well-being of some larger entity” and “to hold something of value in trust.”

As leaders we need to recognize that the ability to steward the larger entity, i.e. the organization as a whole, and to hold something of value in trust, i.e. when a team chooses to trust each other and their team leader, is granted from the follower, not the leader. The employees create the “power” to make the team work. They also make us “leaders” because they choose to follow us. 

And we as leaders need to choose thoughtfully and carefully, too. Our ability to steward is based on the authenticity and integrity of our own behaviors. Some days, we get so busy that we forget that being a good leader means we have to become better people, not just a better leader.

Every day, we have a choice to hold something of value in trust. Our goal is to do this in a conscious manner. As Max De Pree wrote in his book, Leadership is an Art (Dell Publishing, 1990): “the art of leadership requires us to think about the leader-as-steward in terms of relationships, of assets and legacy, of momentum and effectiveness, of civility and values.” We can do this only if we remember that stewardship is as important as change.

The Real Picture Of What A Good Job Looks Like Is In A Person’s Head

“To excel as a leader,” writes Marcus Buckingham in his book, The One Thing You Need to Know ... About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success (Free Press, 2005), “… You must become adept at calling upon those needs we all share. Our common needs include the need for security, for community, for authority, and for respect, but for you, the leader, the most powerful universal need is our need for clarity. To transform our fear of the unknown into confidence in the future, you must discipline yourself to describe our joint future vividly and precisely. As your skill at this grows, so will our confidence in you.”

Brene’ Brown in her book, Dare To Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts (Random House, 2018) builds on this concept by asking the important question, “What does done look like?” I would build on her question by reframing it into “What does done well look like?” As with Buckingham and Brown, William Bridges clarifies the whole thing into a simple but important insight: “The picture in people’s head is the reality they live in.” 

With this in mind, we as leaders have to recognize that the picture inside people’s head matters. And our job is to paint a better picture. We often paint the picture of “here is the work you need to do,” but we don’t paint the picture of “here are the outcomes of the work you are doing.” By defining the later, we are helping people understand why their work matters. It gives meaning, i.e. purpose and significance notes Lindsay Leahy from The Restoration Project, to their efforts and it motivates them on the inside rather than by someone on the outside.

Role Modeling Integrity Is Always The Right Choice 

Dealing with a diversity of problems is a normal part of every leaders work. Over time, one comes to understand that there are no quick fixes with problems. Many are complicated and some are just complex. Nevertheless as a leader, you must always conduct yourself, professionally and personally, with the utmost integrity.

We don’t talk much about the following words these days: integrity, character, authenticity and sincerity. These words seem like they are from a different century, a simpler and less complex time period. Still, the wisdom of the past  and the words from the past can still be applicable and helpful to us in the present.

“The word integrity,” writes Martha Beck in her book, The Way of Integrity: Finding The Path To Your True Self (The Open Field/A Penguin Life Book, 2021), “… comes from the Latin word integer, which simply means “intact…. To be in integrity is to be one thing, whole and undivided…. [it reflects a] complete alignment of body, mind, heart, and soul.”

To role model integrity as a leader, we need to role model the behaviors of courage, commitment, and connection. As Brene’ Brown wrote in the aforementioned book, “Integrity is choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.” 

As leaders who have to deal with problems, and, at times, overwhelming situations every day, we often make a choice to abandon our inner clarity and conform to the expectations of others. As Martha Beck points out, “In this rush to conform, we often end up ignoring or overruling our genuine feelings - even intense ones, like longing or anguish to please our cultures. At that point, we’re divided against ourselves. We aren’t in integrity (one thing) but in duplicity (two things). Or we may try to fit in with a number of different groups, living in multiplicity (many things).”

Furthermore, in the face of overwhelming situations and complex problems, we often choose control and comfort over courage and commitment. Leaders who conduct themselves with the utmost integrity make commitments and keep  these commitments. It is matter of honor, courage ,and personal integrity for them. They commit to a person, a cause, or a mission, because it aligns with their personal core values. And we can see their commitments are deeply held in how they conduct themselves with others and in how they face adversity.

As a person new to the world of leadership, I strongly encourage you, no mater what is the situation before you, to choose each day to be more humble and be more respectful. It will be noticed and it will make a difference in the lives of those you lead and serve.


Choosing to be a leader is a great journey worth taking. The future will always be wildly unpredictable. The problems and challenges will be constant. Still, if we role model integrity, create clarity, build common language and understanding, and remember the importance of stewardship, we will be successful. As Brene’ Brown so wisely stated, “We are the mapmakers and the travelers.” Happy trails as you begin your journey into the land of leadership. 

© Geery Howe 2022

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257