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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Building Potential in the Midst of Failure




“Don’t focus on the failures. Focus on the journey toward results. It’s better to do something and fail than to not try anything at all.”       ~ Ajaero Tony Martins

Do you focus on the failures of people or their potential?  Leaders are passionate about leading others to make something better.  This is called vision.  However, with the drive towards excellence can also come a keen awareness of where things are not right.  This is called discernment.  We need to see where things are lacking to move to the better.

I love to speak into the potential of people.  Last night, I was encouraging a family member about their intelligence and my desire to invest in them.  However, that same day, I had also become consumed with the failings of another family member.  I was frustrated and angry about their lack of change.  All that I was seeing was their past and their lack in the present.  I was staying stuck in this view of them, which was leading to bitterness.  I needed to also see their potential.

Leaders need to walk a tightrope with their perspectives.  They can’t ignore when things go wrong.  Mistakes need to be acknowledged.  However, they can’t become stuck there.  They need to lead others to see how the failures are part of the journey to something better.  Failures, just as much as successes, can be opportunities to cast vision towards potential.

Here are some practical tips to promote potential amid failures:

Be Aware of Your Own Issues with Failure (Model Giving Yourself Grace When You Fail)

Dan is a leader who gets a lot done, but is often fire-fighting to fix problems, rather than focusing on top priorities.  In the long run, this is hurting the organization.  He realized that he is driven by anxiety.  He is fearful that these problems will be viewed as mistakes and so is driven to fix them immediately.  As he evaluated his anxiety, he realized that he had a big fear of failure stemming from a past job where the board only pointed out where he was lacking.  Dan is now stopping when feeling anxious, focusing on the truth of his potential and making choices with his time accordingly.

Are you fearful of failure?  Do you give yourself grace when you fail?  Others notice how we live, not just what we say.  You can tell others that it is okay to make mistakes, but then you also need to model that.  As leaders, we need to evaluate our own underlying issues with failure.

Be Aware of How You Treat Others When They Fail (Disarm the “Hot Buttons” of Failure with Empathy)

Many of us have been conditioned to dislike mistakes.  For example, when I saw the items I missed on a test at school, I saw where I was lacking instead of where I had the potential to learn.  Because of people’s own “hot buttons” with mistakes, how we approach mistakes with others can build them up or tear them down.

As leaders, when a mistake happens, we want to help fix the problem with very good intentions.  We start to ask a myriad of questions to find the solution.  However, our good intentions can unknowingly create a wall with the other person.  We need to first acknowledge the grief that goes along with the mistake before we jump into problem solving.   For example, “I see the disappointment (or sadness, frustration, anger, etc.) you are feeling with this not turning out the way you wanted.  I am here to process through this with you.”  Remember, questions without empathy become interrogation.

Don’t Assume – Ask

Elizabeth has a passion to build a strong team.  She is very diligent with her hiring process; however, her last hire has not worked out.  Hiring can be a time-consuming and emotionally intensive process.  She begins to question herself and her abilities as a leader.

Can you relate to this leader?  We can all be self-conscious at times, and this is only heightened when we feel we have failed.  When we begin to doubt ourselves, we can easily believe that others are doubting us too.  This can especially shape our interpretation of what others in authority are saying to us.  We can assume that our boss, board, parent is only thinking the worse of us, but our perspective can be totally skewed.  And, this will only erode our trust in them, which can have enduring consequences.  Don’t assume what others are thinking.  None of us can read minds.  The relationship will only grow stronger by engaging in conversation and asking for their thoughts.

Trying, failing, and learning are all a part of the journey of achieving the best.  We all need encouragement in times of failure to see the potential.  Be aware of how failure can be emotionally charged for you and others.  Give yourself compassion and grace, extend empathy to others and use it as an opportunity to engage in relationship and cast vision towards potential.

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More Expert Tools to Empower Others




He had been a successful leader of this organization for several years; however, two of his staff members were in an unhealthy conflict that was impacting the whole team.  The staff members did not show love or honor for each other.  Their words tore each other down, and they gossiped about each other.  They were not being held accountable for self-control or how they responded to each other.

Have you ever faced unhealthy relationships within your team?  In last month’s article, we discussed the first four of the seven pillars of healthy relationships that will lead to empowerment of others to accomplish your mission.  These pillars are love, honor, self-control and responsibility, which provide a foundation.  However, the leader in the above scenario also needed to apply the next three pillars of truth, faith and vision to bring his team to unity and empowerment.

Empower through Truth

When I ask others about values that are important to them, honesty is a common item on the list.  Honesty requires truth.  But why is truth so important to us?  Because truth is the basis for trust.  A relationship cannot survive without trust.  Without trust, division is the result and the downfall.  A famous quote of Abraham Lincoln is, “A house divided against itself will not stand.”

You can’t empower others without trust and therefore without truth.  You need to create a safe place (love, honor, self-control and responsibility) where truth can be spoken and received.  The leader in the above story needs to speak truth to both staff members.   Do you speak the truth to yourself?  Do you speak truth to others?

Empower through Faith

Faith is the ability to hope for what is not seen.  What do you put your faith in?  You need to define this for yourself.  Traveling through circumstances and with people can be a rocky road.  Faith is what keeps us steady.  Horatio Spafford composed a well-known hymn titled, “It Is Well with My Soul.”  It is not written because of the many happy circumstances in his life, but instead is his declaration of faith as he sailed past the area where four of his daughters died after a shipwreck.  Faith is what kept him and his wife moving forward in purpose.

Faith can keep us steady amid relationships.  It helps us not to be codependent on others and their actions.  Faith is a foundation rather than our success being dependent on an outcome or a person.   It allows us to empower others with freedom.  With empowering others, there is always a risk, because you ultimately can’t control another person.  However, the benefits of an empowered person towards a common mission far outweigh the risks!

The above leader needs to step out in faith as he confronts the unhealthy interactions within his team.  How does your faith help you to empower others?

Empower through Vision

Vision is what keeps us together.  You can’t empower someone without having a clear vision of where you are going.  First, you need to be strong in who you are and where you are going.  Next, before you can empower another, you need to know who they are and where they are going.  A mistake is to empower someone else and then find that they are in another boat going the opposite direction.

Take time to know the other person and if their vision is aligned with you.  Building relationship and connection is important here.  Sometimes you can define quickly if there is an alignment of vision, other times not.  It can be a process, and don’t label the process as good/bad.  In helping someone define who they are, you have helped them even when your vision is not aligned.  You also in the process have clarified your vision.

I was working with a leader who hired a new person who looked like the right fit for the position.  However, as he helped her to get to know who she was and the requirements of the position, she realized that part of the position fit her, but the highest priority of the position did not.  It would be foolish to continue to empower her in the position that did not fit her and would not take them in the right direction.


Part of the conflict in the story at the beginning of this article with the two hostile team members is that they were not united in the vision.  They each had a different perspective on that vision.  I wish that I could say that this story has a happy ending, but the leader of the organization let fear of conflict control him.  He was unwilling to step out in faith to speak truth into these relationships and to clarify the vision.  He did care about each of these staff members, but he did not honor them by calling out the best in them.  He also did not hold them accountable for self-control and responsibility.  Instead he swept the pursuit of healthy relationships under the rug and now the organization is tripping over the bump in the rug.

How will you use the seven pillars of healthy relationships to empower others to the potential of your people and your organization?  I challenge you not to ignore these pillars but to be proactive in building a healthy culture that will empower you to your best.

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Expert Tools to Empower Others




“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.”

– Bill Gates

Do you want to empower others?  Do you want to know the essential ingredient to empowering others?  It is relationships.  You cannot empower another person unless you are connected to them.  And, the quality of that connection will determine your effectiveness in empowering others.

Recently, a friend of mine had surgery and received care at two different hospitals.  At one hospital, she felt deeply cared for, and you could see the impact on her physical and mental well-being.  But, at the other hospital, she felt like a task and that the staff did not care.  It negatively impacted her attitude and well-being.   The relational connections at these hospitals could empower her to health or not.

So, how do we build healthy connections that will empower?  Danny Silk is a worldwide author and speaker about healthy relationships.  In his book, Keep Your Love On!, he discusses seven pillars to healthy relationships.  I believe that these seven pillars give much practical insights on how to maintain connections that will empower others.

Empower through Love

There are a lot of definitions for love.  I can say that I love ice cream, which means that I have a strong attachment and passion for this food.  We can say that we love a lot of things.  But, I think that the most powerful form of love is applied to people.  The dictionary defines it as: unselfish loyal benevolent concern for the good of another.  It reminds me of the definition of philanthropy – the love of mankind.

You empower others through love when you help them to feel valued and significant.  It is when they feel cared for, safe and protected.  Think of a time when you felt valued and protected.  Probably just reflecting on this memory, you can feel your confidence build to accomplish anything.  This is the power of love to empower others.  Do you pursue the people you want to empower so that they feel known and valued?

Empower through Honor

Honor is the practice of calling out the best in one another.  It is not just honoring someone out of duty because of title, age or authority.  Honor goes deeper than this, and we can choose to honor anyone.  It is the belief in the potential of someone and then calling them out to rise to that potential.

We can honor someone by reminding them who they are and what are their strengths.  It is encouragement.  We can do this by celebrating when people have done a job well.  We also need to honor another when we need to speak the truth of who they are when they have not done well.  It is pointing out how what they did wrong is not in alignment with a greater potential of who they are.  We care too much for them to see that potential not used.  How will you speak into someone’s potential?

Empower through Self-control

Self-control is the ability to demonstrate that we have power over ourselves.  We can set goals, make choices and follow-through.  We can choose the good over the bad.  But, even beyond this, we have the ability to discern and choose the best over many good options.  This is because we have set our priorities and follow-through.

In a relationship, self-control leads to confidence that you will do what you say you will do.  The other person does not have to wonder if you will follow-through.  We empower others when we demonstrate self-control in our own lives and hold them accountable to self-control.  Where do you need to grow in self-control?

Empower through Responsibility

Responsibility is responding to the world around us rather than reacting to it.  It starts with knowing who you are, your identity and values.  This is your foundation and directs how you control yourself and the choices you make.  Life can have many storms.  Do you want to be the tree that falls in the storm, or the tree that still stands because its roots are strong?

Do you know your purpose?  Responsibility allows us to make choices based on our purpose and our goals.  Relationships can have many challenges to them.  Responsibility allows us to respond to others based on who we are, not just a flippant reaction.  If you want to empower others you need to be responsible and lead the way for others to be responsible.  How are you helping others to know who they are, their purpose and goals and then to make choices accordingly?

I know a manager who has done a 180 degree turn with empowering others.  Every day he would be frustrated with lack of productivity, and it would come out in harsh comments to others.  However, the way he was responding to others was not true to who he is.  He does deeply care for people and wants them to succeed, but he was allowing circumstances to pull him down into negative interactions with others.  He now focuses on valuing others by getting to know them, honoring them by mentoring them, setting priorities so he has control with his time, and responding with others rather than reacting.  Now, he is amazed by how others come to him for advice and help so that they can do their work well.

We have discussed four of the pillars of healthy relationships towards empowerment.  However, the above manager, along with other successful leaders, have also applied three additional pillars.  Please join us in our next month’s article, as we discuss these additional pillars and helpful tips.

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