July 7th, 2019
A colleague recently expressed surprise that I had not submitted a response to an RFP for leadership training for a foundation board that was posted prominently by a national philanthropy organization. I demurred saying that I really am not an expert on “leadership.” The colleague’s response was pretty strong: “Are you kidding? Of course you are” and went on to remind me of my own career path.
My professional world over the last quarter century has been fully in the area of grantmaking, funder education, and advising funders and families about how to make informed, ethical, and wise decisions. But the colleague reminded me that I have a long history of volunteer leadership roles, and professional work advising and teaching foundation leadership around the world, and senior executive and supervisory roles. I acknowledged that I had both relevant experience and some well-developed thoughts about leadership.
For what it is worth, I calculated that, over the course of my career, I have served on at least 60 boards and chaired 12. [It is a role I relish and would be delighted to join additional foundation boards.] Moreover, when I was an executive, I supervised dozens of professionals and organizations around the world. While I am in the autumn of my career and these roles have been reduced, there are some learnings that have emerged along the way – a few of which may be worth sharing here.
1. I learned early on that there are 2 types of leadership – “ascribed” and “earned.” The former emerges out of “position” – and is often top down; the latter is what others attribute to you independent of the formal “position.” One would like to think that one can hold both roles simultaneously, but it doesn’t automatically follow and isn’t easy.
2. Being CEO or a professional supervisor carries a certain authority. Indeed, one has that ascribed position because there is assumed confidence that one can lead a business, organization, or foundation or some part of one. When one does this well, the staff, board, other stakeholders, and peers all respect the culture, style, and vision of the leader. This confidence must be earned. Without it, a leader has power but only ambivalent or reluctant followers or employees.
3. The empowerment and enfranchisement of others is typically the most effective long-term way to earn that respect. Top-down exercise of power or charismatic style may work for a while, but it rarely inspires genuine long-term loyalty or deep-seated respect. And they certainly do not cultivate future leadership and decision making, indispensable attributes for the long-term viability of any business or organization. [If you see me, ask me about my sobering discovery, very early in my career, about the flaws of charismatic leadership.]
4. The courage to stand for values in the face of organizational challenges is often a measure of how deeply a leader is committed to earning that role. Organizational change matters, and is always disruptive, but when those changes are only because it may be popular or because a few more powerful folks demand it, it may be expeditious but rarely efficacious. [A personal note: Much to my real surprise, in recent months several people told me that what they remember most about my various leadership roles – both as a professional and as a volunteer leader – were the times I stood fast on principle, or told “truth to power” – even when it was unpopular or at professionally cost/risk. Those anecdotes have touched me deeply.]
5. If having a moral compass matters a lot, leadership also requires a profound empathy. That empathy needs to be manifest to those whom one leads. In these days of attention to staff retention and cultivation, perhaps two very concrete examples [of many techniques I used] will illustrate:
a. Career Pathing: When I was a CEO or supervisory executive, I offered to meet with every professional every year to help update their resumes. Why? Well, for one, virtually every professional thinks about his/her next career step; I know I did. Why should I begrudge that ambition in others? No, I didn’t want those colleagues to leave but even more I didn’t want them sneaking around thinking they were disloyal. An unintended consequence was that I often learned that many professionals were 80-90% satisfied but one element of their job was really bothering them. By switching that one assignment with another professional with a different set of priorities, both could be more gratified in their work, and remain longer than they originally intended.
b. Professional Development: In the non-profit sphere, personnel is almost always the largest budget line. So, if there are budget pressures, that is the first place to turn. One line that always seemed vulnerable was the one for professional development. Yet I knew that it was invaluable to the long-term strength of any organization as well as to the growth of individuals within it. Therefore, working with board leadership, we moved that item from being a separate budget line to an assured personnel benefit – in the same category as health benefits. It demonstrated our commitment to how important this was and protected it from budget cutters who saw conferences and staff training as a dispensable luxury item.
6. Effective leadership requires another balancing act as well: keeping an eye on the long term while understanding the daily demands on all elements of one’s organization or business. A visionary who only sees the future may appear charismatic but can often undercut those who need to do the work. One who is only committed to the daily organizational needs may be an outstanding Operating Officer, but rarely can lead the organization into the vagaries and potentialities of the future. This combination of skills and attributes is rarely easy, but, when achieved, it is the mark of outstanding and exemplary leadership.
7. Culture is the grout that holds the organizational edifice together. For example, espousing empowerment and then overruling decisions is likely to inspire only safe behaviors and discourage risk taking. Bragging about staff quality and then always hiring from outside for key positions erodes loyalty and casts doubt on your sincerity. Endorsing the need for equity yet continuing to pay differential salaries to women or minorities is suspect at best. When there is a discrepancy in any of these areas, there is an erosion of “earned” leadership that not only weakens the leader but takes a toll on the business or organization as well.
It is trite to say that leadership is both an art and a science. Typically, it is hard not because of our intentions but because of our blind spots – every single one of us has them.
As we look around the world today, we find a resurgence of a destructive, non-empathetic, self-satisfying leadership, and not only here in the USA. Whether because of blind spots or megalomania, they are the wrong kinds of leaders for long term societal thriving, and a counterproductive paradigm of good leadership. Someday, soon I hope, they will be replaced.
In the meantime, whether on the national, local, or organizational level, I believe that leadership informed by these insights learned over 5 decades may help advise the next generations of leaders in every sector.