Develop the Nonprofit Leadership Skills You Need to Lead

Investing in nonprofit leadership skills training seems like a luxury nowadays, but is it?  Does it make sense to invest in proactively nurturing team leadership skills?  Or should we continue to let folks learn through endless trial and error, just like we did?  Do we have time?  What happens when the large percentage of Boomers who comprise our nonprofit executive ranks are ready to retire?  Who will take the reins, and are they ready to succeed? 

These questions and more were pondered at the Alliance for Nonprofit Management’s conference — Research to Practice: Advancing Innovative Capacity Building — held in Oakland a few weeks ago.  I participated in the leadership track, and it got me thinking about our future capacity to deliver the goods in our communities.  Over the next month, I plan to do more reading, unpack my thoughts, and share my discoveries with you.  Below are a few initial musings.

Our Higher Calling

In a recent article, Powerful Nonprofit Leadership: The D Factor, the editors of The Nonprofit Quarterly contend that “the main purpose of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations is to promote civil society. It does so by providing forums for people to take collective action and to involve themselves in activities to improve society overall.”  That’s a pretty strong call to action.  

But, if our role improves society, the nonprofit sector should be leading not following.  Are we there yet?  If so, where is the nonprofit voice in the national budget debates?  According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are currently over 1.5 million nonprofits in the US, an impressive number.  So where are the visible leaders advocating for our sector as our relevancy is questioned?  

In light of this apparent national leadership void, I would argue that we have more to learn about how to lead, and there’s no time like the present.  So let’s get started.

Some Ideas to Chew On

I sat in on a conference session led by Ruth McCambridge, editor of The Nonprofit Quarterly, who gave a wonderful overview of current research about leadership.  Here are a few thought provoking ideas:

  • Leadership is the ability to organize things within a group to move past the status quo.
  • Leadership is not the same as management, even great management.
  • Organizations need different kinds of leaders at different stages of their development.
  • The traditional industry leadership model is a triangle with a charismatic leader at the apex.  A more innovative, and perhaps more effective, leadership model for the knowledge economy involves a network of people around a circle who filter information from the perimeter and feed it into the middle of the organization for action. 
  • Making the shift to shared leadership is a paradox, because it takes the right kind of leader to make that happen.
  • Successful leaders create crystal clear transparency about what they are doing as a leader to guide the organization.
  • Leaders must be willing to live on the edge of chaos in one or another part of an organization on an ongoing basis, otherwise, they are promoting a false sense of stability. 
  • Leaders will be “marginalized, diverted, attacked, and/or seduced.”  If you give in to any of these, you lose your power as a leader.

I’ll be writing more about leadership and what the research says over the coming weeks, but I hope this got you started thinking about how leadership works in your organization.

If you have ideas, thoughts, or problems you just can’t seem to solve around leadership, post them in the comments, and I’ll be on the lookout for answers as I do my research.