Leadership is the single determinant of success. The qualities that frame a leader have not changed throughout my whole career-dating back to the civil rights days in the 60’s. Our country, our society, every business, nonprofit, NGO, church/synagogue/mosque will succeed, based upon the quality of organizational leadership.
The people who truly lead organizations effectively, have qualities that create an environment of growth and development, an atmosphere of transformation, and a team that is built on trust, honesty, integrity and inspiration. We are crying out for leaders of NGO’s, nonprofits and our society in general to develop leaders that have a moral compass that people want to follow because they are making the world a better place for righteousness, justice and equality.
I had an opportunity in the mid 1990’s when Kellogg Foundation sent me to Salzburg, Austria to the “Sound of Music Castle” with 50 people from 40 countries to learn about true leadership from people all around the world. This was the first time that I clearly understood the difference between leadership and management. Following this experience, and over the past 20+ years, I have been teaching and have become a student of leadership theory and practices. I want to share with you some of the lessons that we have learned at RMA from working with nonprofits and NGO’s from throughout the world:
- Leaders Are Made, Not Born
Assuming leaders will materialize, would be interminable wait. Even though there are some natural leaders that are born to play a role, most leadership gets developed through hard work, classes and training, and being mentored and coached by others.
- Leaders Always Assume Responsibility First
Everyone makes mistakes. It is part of life. Good leaders will always look to themselves first and assume responsibility, before blaming others. Even if I know that someone else screwed up, assuming responsibility for my role as a leader, helps build and unite the team. Blaming others will almost certainly guarantee dissention and disunity.
- Leaders Know That The Only Certainty Is Uncertainly–
Even though we could develop strategic plans and strategic thinking, to try to minimize risk and uncertainly, life and the environment are not always predictable. Developing contingency plans to answer questions such as:
“What if our plans do not work out?”
“How can we try to play offense rather than defense?”
“ What if the weather does not hold out when we are having a golf tournament?” “What if our presenter at our special event gets sick and does not appear?”
- Leaders Follow the Ready–Aim-Fire Model
Most grassroots and new organizations use a Johnny Appleseed approach to decision making and follow a ready-fire-aim approach without conducting a lot of planning and strategy. You toss out all the seeds, try different approaches and see what works, takes root and grows. This model makes decisions based on feelings, beliefs and thoughts. In many cases this could be a decent model. However, when you are growing and maturing as an organization -you want to begin to become more strategic and less tactical and move toward a ready-aim-fire approach
- Leaders Always Plan On Leaving
This is important, because if you plan on your leaving, you engage and involve your staff, board and stakeholders in key decisions. This helps with building ownership and involvement in the plans and activities of the organization. This also protects the organization again sudden illness, disaster or other unforeseen emergencies. You should always plan on your leaving- even if you have no intention of leaving for the next 10 years!
- Leaders Move Toward Their Fear And Hire Their Weakness
Everyone has weakness, another part of being human. Everyone is afraid of certain things- like change. Perhaps a board chair who is complicating decisions with negativity, a donor that is constantly displeased or threatens to eliminate their gifts. However, the important lesson is to move towards fear (because running away from it will immobilize you) and bring people on your team that have different and complementary skills and talents, in order to backfill your weaknesses.
- Courage Is The Act Of Leadership
My mentor for close to 40 years, is an incredible friend in Washington, DC named of Pablo Eisenberg. He has always told me the single ingredient that is often missing in leadership, is courage. I agree with him. How many times have we heard politicians agree on a position, regardless of their alignment with the governor, mayor or president? How many times do people sit in silence because the CEO presents a strategy and the staff is unwilling to confront this person even though they know the decision is wrong. Great leaders have the courage to stick up for their beliefs and act on them. What good is having values if you are unwilling to act?
- Leaders Follow Instincts-Ask For Second Opinion
Your instincts are just an accumulation of experiences. The older we get (if we learn from our mistakes and experiences) the stronger our expertise and base of experiences. Learn to trust your instincts, but it is still good to cross-check those instincts with people who care about you, and are strong enough to say when they do not agree with your decisions.
- True Leadership Is Not A Hired Position
When we teach community organizing to students, and we are working out in the communities and neighborhoods, we look for the informal rather than the formal leadership. These are the people that others rally behind, galvanize towards and follow. Just because you have the label of an executive director, or CEO it does not mean that you are a real leader. Sometimes it is another person on the staff or board that others respect and look up to that is the real leader. Look for the real leadership rather than the labeled person for direction.
- A Leader Motivates People
One of the critical roles of a leader is to motivate others, especially when there is a crisis, or a situation where hope has been lost and people stop believing in success. True leadership is judged in times of adversity and crisis and not in times of success. A great coach provides real leadership when the team is losing and she/he has the ability to motivate the team to turn it around.
- Leaders Listen First, Then Act
God has given us two ears and one mouth for a particular purpose. Sometimes, the best leaders are introverted and are very quiet in meetings until the end of the meeting where they choose to speak. Listening is critical for understanding, and it is a good policy to have others speak first and then for the leader to summarize and pulls things together based on the values, vision and mission.
- Compassion And Passion Without Competence Is A Dysfunctional Act
Yes, it is important to have compassion and passion for others, but ultimately we are judged based on our competence. We can only weave a vision and dream for so long-until people want to see the production of the goods and the outcomes of the action. You need to have both leadership and management people who can execute the vision and programs on your team to succeed.