For some context, Dr. Frankl was a psychiatrist in Vienna when World War II began. He was already an established and admired professor and author. He was invited to migrate to the US at the beginning of the war but stayed behind rather than leave his aging parents to suffer alone under the Nazi occupation. He was sent to four different concentration camps over the following three years. There, he was stripped of everything the Nazis could take. He tried to protect his work, his family, and his identity as a doctor and an academic. They took all that they could on the surface. But they couldn’t control what was in Dr. Frankl’s heart, mind, and soul.
Dr. Frankl gives us a sense of what daily life was like for someone in a concentration camp. It is gripping, disturbing, humbling, and awe-inspiring. Frankl had to look deeper into his soul to help him decide whether to live or not when faced with dehumanization as well as physical, emotional, and psychological torture. Nietzsche’s words above gave him the key. He had to focus exclusively on WHY it was important for him to survive. He decided his WHY was the hope that he would be reunited with his wife when the war was over. Once he found his WHY, every decision he made and action he took was motivated by that WHY. HOW he navigated the horrors of those three years, and the temptations to just give up, was secondary to his focus on WHY he had to survive.
Takeaways for Nonprofits
While I picked the book up as a way of escape from my regular world of nonprofit management and support, I began to realize that the life lessons I was learning as I read, were also great lessons for nonprofit board members and executives. Sometimes we get so bogged down in HOW we deliver our mission that we lose track of WHY we are so committed to delivering it in the first place. WHY we exist gets lost as we try to figure out how to navigate the most recent partnership opportunity, revenue shortfall, or staff turnover crisis. Of course, none of these challenges in any way compares to fighting for your life in a concentration camp, but nonprofits have staff counting on them for their livelihoods and their community relying on them for the needs they meet so they must have sound strategy around addressing the challenges that come their way.
Finding Your Why
As I read on, I realized that a true WHY is more than a sentence or a single thought. Your organization’s WHY is more than the mission vision statements you post on your website. I’m sure those are great and do a great job of telling others who you are. But when we are alone and faced with existential crises, we need to have more than a pithy statement or lofty vision. We need to find the soul of our WHY and live and make decisions that can stand up to that deeper reason for our existence.
Frankl’s discovery of his WHY didn’t magically give him answers for how to survive or what decisions to make at any given juncture. What it did give him was focus. It reminded him that failure was not an option he would choose. As nonprofit leaders we need to have the same laser focus with the work that we do, refusing to give up when things get difficult.
At one point in the book, toward the end of his captivity, Frankl must decide whether to stay with some sick fellow prisoners who are set to be transported to a “sick house.” Everyone assumes that this is just code for a gas chamber, but Frankl consults his WHY (his wife who he talks to daily in his mind – keeping her alive there if nowhere else) and makes the decision to stay with the sick patients because that decision is congruous with his WHY. Everyone shakes his hand as they assume he is headed to his death, but in the end that was one of the decisions that saved his life. (You’ll have to read the book to see how that happened!)
As organizational leaders we are the people who are asked to do the deep soul searching for our organization. WHY must your organization survive and how will you make decisions along the way that live up to the deeper existential question of WHY your organization exists?
I suspect many of you are working on annual or strategic plans right now. Could that statement keep you focused through life-threatening challenges to your organization? Look beyond your mission and vision statements to find the soul of your organization. When you are in touch with that soul and it can advise you as Frankl’s wife did, you can and will survive through the tough times and live to write an amazing future for your organization.
When you need help finding purpose as an organization and navigating challenging times, reach out to us! We offer nonprofit consulting services to advise your board on how to best run your organization. Our team brings deep strategic and operational experience to offer nonprofit leadership assistance that is unmatched. Contact us today to find out more!
About the Author
Dave Lenox – Managing Partner
Dave is an experienced leader with a demonstrated history of working in the non-profit, change management, and organization design and management fields. At Valtas, Dave’s focus is on providing clients with the best resources available while working to achieve equity and inclusion for all in the non-profit sector.
Over the course of his career, Dave spent over 35 years serving in leadership roles at Special Olympics; President and CEO of Special Olympics Washington (SOWA), Vice President for Leadership Development and Education at Special Olympics Inc. in Washington, DC., Executive Director for Special Olympics West Virginia, and CEO for Special Olympics North Carolina.
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