How to Build Trust: The Paradoxes of Effective Teams




“Rowing is perhaps the toughest of sports.  Once the race starts, there are no time-outs, no substitutions.  It calls upon the limits of human endurance.  The coach must therefore impart the secrets of the special kind of endurance that comes from mind, heart, and body.”  – George Yeoman Pocock

Do you have a dream, a vision you want to reach?  Often to reach it, leaders need to be effective in building a team to help make it happen.

Recently, I read a book by Daniel James Brown titled, The Boys in the Boat.  This book chronicles the epic journey of nine American young men to winning the gold medal for rowing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  These young men did not grow up rowing or from families that were well off.  They grew up in the Depression, came from struggling families, and learned to row at the University of Washington.  By learning to become a team that could flow in unity, they won the gold in a critical time during the Nazi’s rise to power.

Rowing in an eight-oar boat is a sport that cannot be won by an individual.  Daniel Brown captures four paradoxes of effective team building that must happen for trust to be built and the mission to be reached.  These paradoxes are truths that any type of team must embrace to be effective.

Value:  What seems weak can be most needed

In a rowing boat, you can have eight very strong people at the oars, but the boat is actually directed by the smallest and least powerful person in the boat, called the coxswain.  The coxswain is the only individual on the boat who does not have oars and sees where the boat is going.  This person is desired to be small so that they take up less weight in the boat, but without them the boat would never reach the finish line.  They provide the constant strategy and direction, but don’t row at all.

In a team, every person brings a point of value.  We need to acknowledge, remind and encourage the value each person brings.  I was talking with a hospital CEO.  He discussed how it was important to him that the janitorial staff knew that their role was just as important to the success of patient care as that of the role of a doctor.  If the hospital environment is not kept clean, this can have serious consequences to patient care.

How do you encourage every person on your team to know the value that they contribute to the mission?

Perseverance:  The greatest goal can be the biggest obstacle

In rowing, you want speed, but speed also has its price.  The faster you row, the more technical perfection that is required.  If an oar hits the water at the wrong time or wrong way, it can immediately offset the rhythm and speed of the boat and even throw a person out of the boat.  Greater technical precision also leads to more physical pain.  A rowing team must be committed to persevering through challenging times together.

On your way to reaching your mission, you will face challenges together.  Instead of seeing difficulties as a surprise, embrace them as part of the paradox to gaining speed.  Yesterday, I was speaking with an Executive Director who is going through a very challenging time with his board.  We ended our discussion recognizing that this time of difficulty is also a point of renewal for the board.

Where do you need to help your team see the benefit in a challenge and therefore the dedication to persevere?

Interdependence:  Don’t win by having the strongest but by compliments of strengths

It would seem logical that to build the best rowing team, you just find the strongest individuals, but this is not the case.  Effective rowing is about the physical and psychological makeup of the team together.  It is about learning how to compliment together strengths and personalities combined with a shared vision to win.

When building your team together, you need to be aware of the talents, personalities and motivations of all of your team members.  Help them to see what looks like differences actually complement each other and make them stronger.  Also, the glue that holds these individual differences together are your shared values and culture.  Shared values are the cornerstone of selecting the right people for you team.

How are you helping your team to know what their strengths and personalities are and how they can support each other?

Humility:  Strong individual confidence superseded by the team

To be a rower, you need to have ego, will power and confidence.  However, this much strong will put together on a small boat sounds like a recipe for disaster!  But for an effective rowing team, you need driven people who also have the humility to realize and embrace the need for each other.

The Boys in the Boat book focuses on the story of one individual team member, Joe Rantz.  Joe grew up in very difficult circumstances, which taught him to be self-sufficient.  But Joe never completely succeeded on a rowing team until he learned to trust every other individual in the boat.  When everyone on the boat trusted each other, they got their “swing.”  This is when a rowing team is so in sync that they reach a new level of flow and speed.

To build a great team that accomplishes the mission, team members need to know their value, persevere, be interdependent and have humility.  All of these are interlinked together and build trust.  Trust is the secret ingredient that will allow you to get your “swing.”  Trust does not follow a formula, but is discovered in community.

How will you use the above paradoxes for a discovery of trust in your team?

Take time to know the value of each team member, to inspire perseverance, build interdependence and lead the way with humility.  Which of the above paradoxes, do you most need to work on at the start of this new year?

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A Leadership Gift: Waiting




“Much more important than the goal is the presence of God: walking with us on the way and helping us to realize that waiting can be as important as achieving … God summons us to go out but does not always tell us where to, or why … for that we must wait, but in the waiting we can, sometimes, discover a meaning.” – Paula Gooder

The end of the year can be a busy season.  Businesses may be looking at year end financials, and retail shops have extended hours.  Nonprofits are in a high season of engaging with donors.  Schools are doing holiday programs, and students are preparing for exams.  And then we have all the holiday gatherings with family and friends.

Yet, I see a paradox in all of this with the holiday season.  With the Christian tradition, it is advent season, and the actual theme of advent is waiting.  Waiting seems to contradict the reality of our cultural holiday season.  However, I think waiting is the best gift that we can receive.

Here are some ways to apply waiting and receive the rich meaning of this gift in this season:

Be Fully in the Moment

Waiting requires us to engage in the “now.”  Often at this time, we are thinking about the past year or thinking ahead to what needs to be done.  Waiting pulls the past and future together into the present moment.  Yes, we need to learn from the past and plan for the future, but right now is when we are living.  We need to live each moment fully – feel it, breathe it, enjoy it, wrestle with it.  Waiting brings meaning to the life we are living right now.

Be Present and Authentic with People

We often have a long list of things to accomplish, but it is people who help us to get to those goals.  In teams, we need people to reach our year end objectives.  Even with buying gifts, it is not about the product we are buying, but about the person who is to receive the gift.  Yet, in our busyness, we lose sight of the purpose.  We let our goal focus, turn people into objects along the way.  Waiting slows us down to engage with people, a deeper meaning.

Be Fully You

We can become so driven and busy that we don’t fully be who we are.  We become this robot of just getting things done.  This can often mask who we truly are to ourselves and to others.  I met with a leader recently, who received feedback that people’s perception of her was not her intention.  She has a high amount of empathy and cares about others, but her goal focus was overriding her true self coming out to others.  Waiting puts us in touch with the deeper meaning of who we truly are.

Here are some practical steps to apply waiting:

  • Slow down your thinking and refocus on your physical senses. Notice the beauty of nature.  What do your toes feel like?  Savor your food.
  • Listen deeply to people. Focus on what they are saying, not how you will respond.  Being able to repeat or summarize what they said shows you are listening.
  • When buying a gift, think about the person for whom you are buying it, not about just completing a task.
  • Reflect on your purpose and strengths. Did you live those out today?
  • Reflect on your past and future. How do they connect to your present purpose?
  • When asking for a donation, ask how does this connect to this person’s passions and values?
  • When giving a donation, ask yourself how it connects to your own passions and values?
  • Make a gratitude list.

Take time this season to receive and embrace the gift of waiting.

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Innovative Leadership: Leaderful Ecosystems – Part II




“In order for movements to succeed, we have to de-center, grow, and redistribute leadership. We need to see our organizations and ourselves in a different way.” – Vincent Pan

In a previous article we discussed the power of leaderful ecosystems.  This is the focus of seeing the larger system and engaging with it so that greater movements of change can happen.  This is similar to how nature prospers and grows because each component connects and depends on each other.

For example, my family grows tomato plants.  A tomato cannot just appear on its own.  It is dependent on the plant to produce it, which also needs the soil, and then rain and even the decomposition of other organisms for nutrients.  In the same way, effective leadership that can influence complex change is not dependent on an individual or even one team, one organization, one region, etc.  It takes a larger system working together.

In the last article, we discussed three key nutrients for this type of innovative leadership based on an article in The Nonprofit Quarterly called, Cultivating Leaderful Ecosystems.  There are also two additional key nutrients that will help your leadership to be more effective.

Leadership Values Multiple Ways of Knowing

There is an organization that I am familiar with that greatly values data and all decisions are made accordingly.  Data is very useful and their system of knowing through data has brought them much success.  But, currently their focus on data is only allowing them to fix symptoms rather than addressing deeper issues that are crippling the company.  They would benefit from also valuing other ways of “knowing” beyond data.

To tap into other ways of knowing, you need to engage in meaningful conversations with others.  This can also mean hearing different perspectives from your own and engaging in healthy conflict.  It can also include learning from experiences, backgrounds and even gut intuition.

To access this level of leadership, you must build trusting relationships.  You also need to go beyond the normal people you talk to.  I know one NPO leader who regularly has lunch with another NPO whose views and values contrast deeply from his.  They have a similar mission but very different ways of achieving it.  It is not that he will change his values, but that he sees the other leader as a person too.  Someone that he can listen and gain insight from their perspective.

Leadership that Creates Space for Inner Work

Any complex challenge and change can take its toll on us.  It requires perseverance and full engagement of who we are.  We need to be sustainable.  When your body is exposed to extreme cold, it will divert heat and energy to your core where your organs are to keep you alive.  In the same way, sustainable leaders know that you will never reach your mission if you sacrifice your core.

The core is you and your people.  We need to take care of each other and our whole beings.  How are you and others doing mentally, physically, socially, spiritually, financially, professionally and in your family life?  If we don’t take care of ourselves as a whole person in these core areas, we will not be around to make the mission happen.

We need to allow time for retreat, reflection and for people to reach their potential in their unique authenticity of who they are in their strengths passions and outlets.  I know one successful leader, who provides paid retreat time for all his employees.  He also seeks out how they are uniquely gifted and builds the position around them instead of them fitting into a predefined structure.  Even his org chart is designed around people moving through a system rather than in fixed positions.

How will you apply the five nutrients of a leaderful ecosystem today?  One step is to engage the broader system.  Are there new relationships that you can form in your community and beyond to reach a shared mission?  You need to build relationships, but how you build those is critical.  Do you fully listen and get to know the person instead of seeing them as a means to an end?  Do you open your mind to a new perspective?  Also, when we lead, we need to be flexible.  How are you growing your leadership ability to know when to be directive and when to be facilitative?  How are you also expanding yourself in other ways of “knowing”?  How are you taking care of yourself and others in order to be sustainable?

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Innovative Leadership: Leaderful Ecosystems – Part I




Leadership is the capacity to create something of meaning and align values and actions across groups of people or communities. It is about relationships among people and how they support, complement, and supplement each other and the broader ecosystem.

– Aja Couchois Duncan, Susan Misra and Vincent Pan

Leadership is about connecting people together to achieve something greater.  Nature can teach us a lot about this.  My husband is a fisheries and wildlife biologist.  I enjoy hiking with him.  He is like having “Siri” in person on a hike with me to explain the deeper community in nature that is below the surface of what I see.  He will show me how a non-native plant that was planted unknowingly has changed a whole system of where native plants can no longer grow.  It in turn can have ramifications on other plants and animals.

Leadership has this similar power.  As leaders, we can become focused on our specific goal or niche, but lose sight of how our mission is connected to something much bigger.  It is when we see the larger system and engage with it that greater movements of change can happen.  The Nonprofit Quarterly recently published an article called, Cultivating Leaderful Ecosystems.  In this article, the authors describe five leadership “nutrients” that can nurture such leadership.  Below are three beneficial tips that can help us to be more effective, and we will share the other two tips in a following article.

Leadership Engages the Broader System

As leaders, we have a mission, but do we share it with others?  As an individual, you may have a passion for making something better.  You put time, effort and energy towards your goal, and you see some progress.  But, at some point, you realize that your sphere of impact is limited as one person.  So, you grow a team, which then multiplies the efforts of your mission.  You build an organization to bring structure and focus.  We see some success towards our mission, but we often stop here.

Social change is a complex issue.  Sometimes we allow our organizational structure to keep us from expanding to create a much more impactful change in a larger ecosystem.  Greater change happens when we expand outwards into further networks of people.  We must go beyond our organizational walls, not seeing others as competition, but as allies on the same mission.  This is leadership being multiplied to a new level.

To be effective at this level, we need to reach out to new relationships and listen.  What mission, vision and values do we share?  What new perspective can we see from others and that can help us be better?    How can we join together and make a bigger change?

Leadership that Intentionally Builds Relationships to Embody Equity

Sometimes leadership can be ego-driven.  In our culture, we tend to magnify charismatic leaders and can have a “hero” focus.  This can drive leaders to push for results because they are seeing their significance in what others see them as accomplishing.  But, this kind of mindset stands as a huge barrier to an ecosystem of leadership.

Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great, discusses that your most successful organizations have “Level 5 Leadership.”  These are leaders who channel their ego and ambition away from themselves and instead into building a great organization.  I believe that Level 5 leaders can go a step beyond this by also channeling their ambitions into building a great community (ecosystem) of leadership.

To do this we need to value people from a variety of backgrounds, organizations, etc.  We need to see the people as people and not as services, tasks or labels.  When we do this, we engage better, we listen and see new solutions.

Leadership is Flexible

We tend to be most familiar with hierarchical leadership models.  If you look at most organizational charts, what you will see is a leader at the top with tiers of more people leading other people downward.   This model can be effective but also can have its limits.  It tends to produce more of a top-down control with everyone looking above them for direction.  It can produce more efficiency and direct results, but also limit creativity and innovation.

Nature is very creative and innovative.  Organisms flow like a dance with each other in a system that collaborates and responds to growth and change.  Leaderful ecosystems also need collaboration and flexibility.  Leaders need to be a facilitator among colleagues.  This allows us to look for new solutions that go beyond what we have always done.  However, there are also times when a clear solution is seen that we must move with directive leadership.

So a skilled leader is one who can move between collaborative/ facilitative leadership and directive leadership.  They know the appropriate times of when to use each and keep the overall system flexible.

How will you apply a leaderful ecosystem today?  Leadership is about people.  It is about building relationships with shared values to reach a greater mission.   How will you challenge yourself to go beyond your comfort zone and create greater change as a leader?

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How to Lead through Change




“God met me more than halfway, he freed me from my anxious fears.  Look at him; give him your warmest smile.  Never hide your feelings from him.” – Psalm 34:4-5 (MSG)

I put down my phone and felt numb.  My mom had just told me that my Dad’s heart was in a dangerous condition with limited choices for repair.  Have you ever been in a similar situation where you have felt fear by a circumstance that you did not expect?  All of us have times when we are faced with a change that overwhelms us.  Over this past month, I have talked with people whose job positions have been in a major transition, who are amid a company merger, who have had to lead in firing and hiring staff, who are amid divorce, and another facing a major illness.

As I reflect on these changes, one word comes to mind: grieving.  The grief process is the emotional journey for navigating successfully through change.  Growth only happens with change.  A successful leader is someone who can lead others well through change to a greater potential.  What changes are you having to lead through right now?

Understanding Change With the 5 Stages of Grief

As a leader, you can see clearly that you need to get people to move from point A to point B.  On the surface, the vison is quite straight forward.  However, with every change there is an undercurrent of emotions that must be processed through to get to the destination.  You will not succeed as a leader if you can only see the vision, but can’t lead the people through the emotional journey of change.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is a psychiatrist whose research has become a foundation in understanding the grief process.  She identified 5 stages of grief.  To lead successfully through change, you need to be aware of and navigating through each of these.


A typical first reaction to change can be shock.  The greater the change, the stronger the level of shock.  This happened to me when I first heard about my dad’s heart condition.  I felt numb.  It was like my brain could not process it.  At this stage, people may wonder if this is really happening.


Another common reaction is anger.  When others become angry, our own adrenaline can kick in.  Don’t take this personally and then engage as though in a battle.  Keep aware of the big picture of the grieving process, and accept the anger as just part of the process.


With change, people feel out of control and without choice.  They can feel fearful.  To feel control, they can have thoughts referred to as bargaining.  Such as, maybe if I do this, the change won’t happen.  Or, maybe if I say this, they will change their mind.  They may blame others.  If you had only done this, this would not be happening.  Or, they may feel guilt.  If only I had done this, this wouldn’t be happening.


When a change happens, things will not be the same as they were.  With every change, there are also losses alongside the gains.  People can also feel a great sadness with what they are losing.


This is the stage where people integrate the loss with the acceptance of something new.  They see the past as part of the journey to the new.  They begin to embrace the new reality as the norm and see hope in the next path and vision.

Leading Through Change With the 5 Stages of Grief

When going through change, people will experience the stages of grief uniquely.  They may experience one stage quickly and another stage longer.  They can also jump in between stages.  So, don’t apply the stages as a formula, but as a state of awareness as you seek the right dynamics to listen, lead and influence.  Here are some application points.

Provide Time and Space

When you present a change, don’t think you can give the news and immediately move on to action steps.  You need to give people space to digest the information.  You may also need to repeat information later because people may not be able to process it all when first hearing it.  Be patient and give space to process.

Explain the Why and Space for Input

Explaining why a change is happening and allowing input helps to build trust.  When people feel that a change is being thrusted upon them and they have no control, it helps to understand why the change is happening.  You also need to provide a clear direction of where you are going.  This helps to clarify unknowns.  But people are also living in the present.  When you allow time for input, this gives people a sense of autonomy during the change.  You are creating a space for shared understanding.  Explain the reality of the loss, the reason and benefits.  Connect to the shared values and vision.  Allow time for questions, input and processing.

Honest Conversations

Provide space for people to process through their feelings.  You can’t stuff emotions.  They will eventually come out.  If you don’t provide open spaces for emotions to be processed, then they will come through the back door of negative spaces of gossip, sarcasm, withdrawal and destruction of culture.  As a leader, make sure you include margin time for conversations.  Keep an open door, take extra time to check-in with people, give extra time for conversations in meetings.   Lead your leadership team to keep an emotional pulse within the organization.  Proactively share concerns, confront rumblings and reach out to those saying nothing.

Change is good and is a sign of life.  In nature, no change is often an indicator of death.  Organizations that try to maintain status quo slip into decline.  Change is breath to vision and increase, but it also has an emotional toll.  However, the emotional challenge in not a negative.  It is a part of the life process.  It keeps us engaged with our people.   And when people are engaged the increase in multiplied.  So, make space for vision, change and the engagement of people.  How will you apply the application points from above?

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