What’s the Best Leadership Advice You’ve Received? 7 Nuggets From My Years As A Nonprofit CEO

March 25, 2020 | 
4 minute read

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a junkie for the latest trends in business or leadership books. I am the kind of person who loves envisioning ways to enable cultures to thrive and processes to be more efficient and effective. Honestly, whenever you’re hired as a turnaround CEO with nonprofits facing financial shortfalls and burned out staff, you need all the help you can get.

Recently, my friend Dr. Amy Butler, former senior minister at The Riverside Church in New York City, asked me to be a guest speaker during her doctoral seminar entitled, “The Vulnerable Leader.”

One of her students asked me the question, “What is the best leadership advice you’ve learned that you can share with us?”

Here’s some of what I said:

Short-term pain is often necessary for long-term gain.

When you are leading a nonprofit — which is, after all, a human organization full of all kinds of people — it is easy to become so wrapped up in personalities that you don’t make decisions that are in the best interest of the organization.

You can say to yourself, “This is too hard. Maybe it can wait until next year” or “If I make this decision then it’s going to create a lot more work for me now.”

But great leaders pull band-aids off problems no one else wants to talk about. Then they act with decisiveness, precision, and lead others toward healthier practices. Don’t you love a leader who models the characteristics they want to see in their team?

Serious leaders are able to weather the storm when it comes (and it always comes).

Leaders are designed to see the future, not the past. Their job is to paint a picture of that future and take people there!

To do this, it often means that you as the leader must take yourself out of the equation. Don’t take the worst days personally. I’ve seen some of the best leaders I know crumble in moments when their organization needed them the most because they’ve made the problems all about them. Or they’ve taken their cues about how they feel about themselves from how the organization is doing.

If we want to lead something great, then we have to know there are days that we’ll all struggle. But this is never the full story. Long-term gain is on its way if we can just hold on.

I love the Maya Angelou quote, which says, “When people show you who they are, believe them.”

Leaders must learn to listen to their gut. We have intuition after all. We must pay attention, not only to the words spoken, but also the words unspoken beneath the surface. The best leaders I know are those who can walk in a room and sense the mood without even having one conversation.

Sometimes the hard truth is simply….. NO.

Yet when we begin to take the pulse of people, we as leaders can often second guess ourselves saying, “Well, maybe I should give this initiative a 3rd, 4th or 5th chance to succeed.” Or, “Maybe in time so and so will change.”

While I believe in extending grace and giving people the benefit of the doubt, there are often times and situations that will never change if we don’t trust our gut and chart the course differently.

Leaders must let their people in on the “why?”

Gone are the days, I believe, when people just go to work with contentment because it is what they do. Employees long to know that no matter their role, they have a part to play in making a difference in the long haul at their organization.

A recent poll stated that, “Of the country’s approximately 100 million full-time employees, 51 percent aren’t engaged at work — meaning they feel no real connection to their jobs, and thus they tend to do the bare minimum.”

When leaders ask employees to change course, especially if the path they are changing from is a long-standing tradition, resistance will come if no one knows the “why”.

One of my biggest pitfalls I’ve made as a nonprofit CEO is not fully explaining why we are making organizational transitions at that particular time.

Being a big picture guy, where everything is clear in my head, I’ve forgotten that the extra time needed to explain the “why” is well worth it.

Learn from my mistake. Learn to speak that way to every person who works in the organization from the support staff, to the mid-level management, and to your direct reports. The time you take to both learn how to and speak directly to those under your care will give tenfold results, especially as significant organizational pivots are made.

If you asked me what kind of leader I was 5 years or even 10 years ago, these wouldn’t be the same lessons on the list.

Leadership is a work in progress. No matter what kind of position you hold – if you lead a group of 2 or 2,000 or 20,000, you must keep personally growing.

None of us should ever feel like we’ve arrived. There’s always an opportunity to learn and grow. John F. Kennedy said it best, “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

So, if we want to be in the business of leading others, then you and I need to constantly be improving our craft and sharing the wisdom we’ve gained along the way.

What is the best leadership advice you have to share?

At Thrive Impact, we are building a community of nonprofit leaders that believe that we as nonprofits need to thrive so that we can have the impact our communities need from us. We need to soar to our highest potential together for the sake of our people.

If you’re a nonprofit CEO or Executive Director, we’d love to hear your best leadership advice. Let us know here by filling out this (very) brief form! Then, over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be sharing some of the best pieces of we receive from nonprofit leaders over on Instagram and Facebook.

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2 comments on “What’s the Best Leadership Advice You’ve Received? 7 Nuggets From My Years As A Nonprofit CEO”

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more regarding the need to explain the “why.” Hearing why an organizational transition came at a particular time helps alleviate a lot of potential misunderstandings to assumptions that are often made without this type of explanation.

  2. I can’t agree more with your statement of true leaders weather the storm. The true test of a leader is not how well they do when things go right but how well they do when things go wrong. Great article.

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