An Open Letter to Nonprofit Boards: Get to Know Your Leadership Personally (or Risk Them Failing Professionally)
The result is a deeply personal imprint on an individual’s professional leadership style. Find out why this matters and how nonprofit boards can use this information to drive organizational success by connecting with leadership better.
Leadership is Intrinsically Personal
The longer my professional life continues, the more I realize that leadership is intensely personal. People come to it from different places, for different reasons, and with different tactics. Some are driven by the rewarding feeling of seeing others succeed. Others thrive on seeing organizational metrics being achieved as never before. For some, the driving forces are obvious, public, and fed by external recognition. Others view leadership as a very personal, an intrinsic approach to human interaction, and are fed by an internal sense of growth and achievement in themselves and the people around them.
I don’t know if anyone understands how or why people fall into one of these categories over the other. I don’t think though that anyone truly believes that it is because they read a certain author, book, or article. True leaders are driven. They are proactive, curious, and have a non-stop voice in their head that both drives them and distracts them. I do believe you can teach the traits of various current and historical leaders, but how those lessons are internalized, absorbed, and then converted to management or leadership styles, passion for their work, or even the motivation and angst they feel every day is personal.
So, what’s the point? How does knowing this help us on our own leadership journey? How does knowing this help us lead our organizations and businesses? How does it help us deal with challenges, questions (both from others and from the voices in our head!) and changing realities in our professional lives?
A Lesson from “The 5 Love Languages”
Another perspective from which to approach these questions happens when self-reflection and change occur. In the book “The 5 Love Languages” Gary Chapman helps you recognize what happens in your love relationships when you are speaking and acting based on YOUR “love language”, but your partner speaks a different love language.
For example, if your natural Love Language is based on Words of Affirmation, that is what you tend to give and what you want to receive from your partner. If your partner’s natural love language is centered on Receiving Gifts, that will be how they show their love and how they expect to see love from others. So, your partner may go out and spend an amazing amount of time and money looking for just the right gift that represents their love for you. But you have little interest in gifts. You want to hear that you are a good spouse, lover, parent, person, etc. so now you are both frustrated in spite of trying sincerely to communicate your appreciation and love for each other.
Likewise, a board might decide to give a bonus or raise as demonstration of their appreciation for an executive or staff. But if said executive or staff are more motivated by a desire to be seen and appreciated for their work, that bonus or raise will likely be appreciated, but seen more as a required transaction or obligation. Their need for appreciation and recognition is still unmet, inching them ever closer to moving on to an organization that will supply the appreciation they need. The opposite is of course, also true. You may offer praise and have it received as token or performative if their language is more driven by a need for tangible gifts. I know, it seems like you can’t win!
But you can.
Seeking True Understanding
Knowing what motivates us at a very base level is critical. But if you are a board chair of a nonprofit organization, it is also important to have a good sense of how these factors live and manifest in the Executive Director or CEO of your organization. It is the CEO’s job to do the same and know that for each staff member. Without that awareness, you are in danger of approaching issues or circumstances using a language that doesn’t resonate with them. You also might be frustrated by the fact that they don’t share your baseline perspectives on stability, sustainability, or progress. You can both care deeply about the organization, but people approach leadership from unique starting points internally. Learning to navigate those differences can help both the organization and the people connected.
A Collective Real World Example
The Great Resignation has been dissected enough by now. But that won’t stop me from offering one more observation. My sense is that our world got dealt a huge dose of honesty, and that triggered some very honest responses. The dose of honesty the world was dealt was that life can be fragile and sometimes bad stuff happens not because someone screwed up, but because that’s the way the world works. Sometimes that reality catches us by surprise.
My sense is that the pandemic shattered our conventional wisdom about how the world works and how we interact with other people, jobs, and situations. I hear some people talk about how the workforce decided to seek greater work/life balance or better pay. But I hear more people talk about just realizing that they were not happy. And since the rules seemed to all be gone for how the world works, they felt free to be honest with themselves about where, why, how, for whom they worked.
My Professional Experience
I had this experience myself. I worked for 35 years with and for a movement that I was passionate about. My family would tell you that it defined me, and to a great extent them. I would do anything to promote, defend, or preserve that organization. It was not always fun, and at times it was so stressful that it made me physically ill. But I stayed with it because I loved the mission and the people it drew to it.
Then, when the pandemic hit and the rules all seemed to be thrown out the window, I found myself taking stock of my work and impact in world with a whole new set of needs and opportunities. It was painful, but once I was honest with myself, I realized that my passion was around a mission that had changed. The change was probably for the best for all concerned. I didn’t begrudge the change. I did, however, realize that I was no longer what that organization needed; and even more painful was the realization that I didn’t want to lead it in this new wild west reality. I decided it was time for a new generation of leaders to take the helm. They would bring new energy, new ideas, and new direction.
I suspect that I am not alone. The new reality that has emerged from the pandemic is a workforce that is more focused on the difference they can make personally. Younger generations have been trending toward this mindset for a while now. Another aspect of this new reality is that people are more in touch with themselves and what makes them feel fulfilled. They no longer feel the need to conform to the corporate model and to grovel with higher ups about what should make them satisfied – never mind happy!
My advice to board leaders is to get to know your Executive Director/CEO on a personal level. Find out what drives and motivates them. Take note of that and then reward them in that language. Ask if they know the same about their direct reports. Are they taking care of the people doing the real work? Ask yourself, what language YOU speak. What drives you to keep showing up and making contributions? I know it all sounds very new age. Maybe it is. But if you want results and longevity of qualified leaders, you may just need to embrace the new age.
About the Author
Dave is the Managing Partner of Valtas Group where his focus is on providing clients the best resources available while working to achieve equity and inclusion for all in the non-profit sector. Dave is an experienced leader with a demonstrated history of working in the non-profit, change management, and organization design and management fields. He is skilled in international relations, inclusive governance models, organizational development, social media, and training. Over the course of his career, Dave spent over 35 years serving in leadership roles at Special Olympics.
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