Leading Through These Turbulent Times

I recently had the pleasure of addressing a statewide meeting of executives and board members from rural nonprofits in Nevada. My keynote remarks were to be on leadership – a topic that I suppose seems a little shopworn at some point.

These days, however, running a nonprofit organization is anything but routine, nothing resembling business as usual. I am more impressed than ever by the tenacious, brave people who lead in the nonprofit sector. I’ve got 40 years of experience with grassroots organizations and have never seen such a challenging time; our prediction from a year ago that one nonprofit in five is likely to disappear in this recession is regrettably coming to pass. For virtually everyone, the economy is troubling – but for those hanging on in the nonprofit sector, these times are as volatile as a tornado.

Fundraising has never been tougher. Today too many nonprofit leaders are being forced to learn how to “do less with less,” scaling back on programs and people. Admittedly, there is some value in re-focusing your limited resources on the most core purpose of your mission, but even the proverbial silver lining these days is thin. Ask any valiant development director how things are going, and you’ll hear how individuals are donating 25-50 percent less, foundations are funding only known and established initiatives over new ventures, and the pressure of 47 states in the U.S. running a budget deficit this year affects the nonprofit sector profoundly.

I wanted to give a provocative and positive leadership talk, in spite of the challenges swirling around us. After all, I have always believed that leaders are judged during times of crisis and adversity – not in times of plenty. It is easy to be a leader when you are winning. The true measure of an effective leader is when times are tough and you continue to motivate people through the crisis.

So for my Nevada colleagues, I put aside my usual teaching and training materials and simply offered these essential leadership lessons.

  1. Take more risks. Without risk, there is no growth. Leaders today must learn to accept uncertainty as a given, and learn to live on the edge (or ledge). I always remind people that courage is not “the absence of fear” – it is facing your fear. Margaret Wheatley writes, “Failures, losses, mixed moments of true greatness and sheer stupidity all occur to test the limits of your soul. Without these small tests, life would be like a smoothly paved, straight, flat road to nowhere: safe and comfortable but dull and utterly pointless.”
  2. Listen. Just listen. So much emphasis in our professional development is on writing and speaking, with the essential skill of listening overlooked. Listening is giving your complete attention to hear from all affected parties, learning to re-state and clarify. Meanwhile, as a nonprofit leader, you often have to make decisions based on the best information you have on hand; the “ready, fire, aim” mode is all too common in our sector. The critical point to remember, however, is to always seek understanding and allow time for reflection. I love the old saying, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.”
  3. Practice self-care. The image of an overworked, exhausted nonprofit executive director is almost a clich√©. It is so critical that we learn to protect our medical, emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual health. Finding a balance in our lives is a constant struggle. Remember how the airlines always instruct you to place your own breathing mask before assisting others? Think about it: if you don’t take care of yourself first, you won’t be able to serve.
  4. Appreciate the difference between leadership and management. A nonprofit executive director typically has to provide bothswitching back and forth in the course of a single day. Each is essential but is a unique practice and skill set. Leaders look at concepts, managers looks at things; leaders seek effectiveness, managers seek efficiency. Leaders ask “why,” and managers ask “how.” Terminations of nonprofit executives often occur when a person is too strong on one side of the equation and neglects or disregards the other.
  5. Be an “inspiration evangelist” of a vision. An evangelist is always eager to share key messages and phrases, fresh data, and wonderful stories about the people you serve. Be infectious in your promotion of “what can be,” not merely “what is.” Armed with information and eager to share is a leadership role your board members should fill, too.
  6. Focus on the care and feeding of your board. High-performing boards don’t happen by accident or by osmosis. You must provide clear direction. And don’t just fill your board with “warm bodies.” Recruit carefully, provide strong orientation, set defined expectations. Make meetings matter and use the time to educate, engage, and even entertain.
  7. Remember that leaders are made . . . not born. Life is one long leadership lesson, if you’re lucky. A person who emerges as a true leader has persuasive leadership skills, is an empathetic listener, tampers egos in favor of the greater good, garners trust and confidence, is willing to try the new and unknown, and models behavior based on values. Leadership is not some innate ‘gift,’ but long-standing skills to be practiced.
  8. Aspire to servant-leadership. Much has been written on the topic, although we all have much to learn. Helping is a job or an assignment, servicing is a calling. Helping is based on inequality and is a form of judgment; serving is mutual healing and does not engender debt. Helping sees life as weak and broken, healing sees life as whole.
  9. Relentlessly pursue collaboration. Enough talk in our sector about partnerships and working cooperatively – the time has come and the need has never been more critical. Finding ways to work together is hard work; the barriers to collaborating with like-minded nonprofits are more about ego and turf than they are about purpose. Too many nonprofits suffer from “terminal uniqueness,” thinking no one else could possibly understand their mission/program. This is a potentially fatal delusion.
  10. Move toward your fear, hire to your weakness. Surround yourself with people who are better than you are at doing what needs to be done. A leader creates ways for others to lead, always brings the new generation along and helps emerging leaders discover their gifts. Don’t hold the “only candle” in the room. And always think about your leaving.

It was a bit of a risk – not my usual material – but I felt the speech went well. I suppose the best presentations are ones where the speaker learns as much as the audience. I never tire of thinking, talking, or reading about leadership, even during this tumultuous recession. For all my experience, I am still a learner as well.

And I know that even my own discomfort is a sign of progress. As the writer Rudolf Bahro suggests, “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.”

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