Tag Archives: nonprofit leadership

Live Oak

I’m fascinated by what makes someone an effective nonprofit leader.

Yes, leaders should be inspiring and visionary, setting and articulating a vision for the organization. And, of course, it’s important for leaders to manage finances well, to be compelling fundraisers, and to be good at delegating responsibilities. But, more than anything, being an effective leader comes down to character, work ethic, and personality.

One way to think of it: an effective nonprofit leader is a person with thick skin, dirty fingernails, and a good heart.

Let me tell you about a woman I’ll call Anna, who has been running a historical museum, and running it extremely well, for many years. She’s an exemplary nonprofit leader. Anna is calm and cool. She resists the temptation to respond to provocations. I was speaking with one of her board members, a historian of the early American Navy, and he said, “Anna’s made of live oak!” His reference was to the remarkably dense framing timber, live oak, that was used to construct Old Ironsides and the other 18th-century frigates of the first U.S. Navy. Live oak gave those ships an unequalled resilience. Anna, he told me, was made of the same stuff. “Cannonballs just bounce off her.” Continue reading

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Lonely At the Top

{Note: This post has been co-published by the Maine Association of Nonprofits.}

It’s not easy being a nonprofit CEO. People expect the CEO to have all the answers. The ideal CEO is inspiring, strong, visionary, articulate, persuasive, down to earth, and, of course, good with numbers. Poet, warrior, spiritual leader, bean-counter: the perfect leader.

And when I meet the person who has all of those qualities, I’ll let you know. Continue reading

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Anticipating the Worst

People make dumb decisions.

Sometimes the decision isn’t really a decision at all, but simply a momentary loss of focus, like locking yourself out of the house when you take the dog for a walk. Sometimes what happens is more of an actual decision, but it’s impulsive, like deciding to pass a slow-moving truck on a two-lane road without first checking to see if there is oncoming traffic. Sometimes the dumb decision results from the stubborn refusal to recognize changing circumstances, like insisting on climbing to the summit of a mountain despite a blizzard, plummeting temperatures, and the approach of sunset.

Corporations make dumb decisions all the time, too. Coca Cola famously altered its 99-year-old recipe in 1985, introducing a sweeter “New Coke” – a decision they rescinded 71 days later. (Oops!) Some of the greatest business missteps involve corporate takeovers. One company absorbs a second, only to find out afterwards that it has also taken on ownership of toxic waste sites, or hopeless amounts of debt, or law suits relating to faulty products. In the heat of the moment, the advocates for the takeover ruled the day, while the possible negative outcomes seem not to have been seriously considered.

Nonprofits make decisions as well, of course, and a healthy share of them are ill-considered. Continue reading

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Foundering

“So what’s your boss like?” I asked a friend, who had recently taken a position at a nonprofit.

“Well, you know. He’s a founder.”

My friend then listed the adjectives describing his boss: “Creative. Dynamic. Charismatic. Visionary. Brilliant. Funny. Inspiring.” Also, “Meddling. Obstinate. Egotistical. Defensive. Controlling. Annoying. Demanding. Distracted.”

Continue reading

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