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Posts from the ‘Leadership’ Category

Words Really Do Matter – Post Papal Visit Update

September 28th, 2015

Richard Marker

Over the summer, I wrote “Words Really Do Matter” – a cautionary missive for those of us who earn our livelihoods with our words. Much of this was targeted to fellow members of the National Speakers Association – some of whom seemed to object to being challenged by those whose narratives included political mandates. My rebuttal: Our charge must be to engage with a seriousness of purpose and not simply entertain. En passant, I called for some greater self-discipline in political discourse.

Wouldn’t it have been nice if that had an impact, but in fact, the character of public discourse has only deteriorated since then. [Don’t misunderstand, I have no illusion that any of the principals have ever heard of me, let alone read my writings.] What concerns me these days is that the level of honesty in that discourse has sunk to despicable new lows; that some are now arguing that what our Declaration of Independence and Constitution consider inalienable rights should be decided by popular vote; that private religious belief and practice, guaranteed by our constitution, should be imposed on the public at the whim of individual believers; that no-nothingness – as in anti-vax and anti-climate change – should be given equal weight in education as scientific consensus; that public insults about size, looks, and pretty much anything else can be offered with impunity; that victims should shoulder the blame as well as bear the burden of their own victimhood…

Each one by itself represents a violation of civility. Taken together they represent a profound erosion of a commitment to civil society seen only in totalitarian regimes. It is scary out there.

I know that reasoned exchange is never as catchy as simplistic extremism; that societal anomie and anger is easier to manipulate for political gain than offering real solutions; that a changed and dangerous world is disruptive and unsettling for too many; that social injustices and economic disparities are glaring threats to stability and play into the hands of demagogues. We are paying the price for elected officials who reject governing; for long term underinvestment in education for our most at-risk populations; for a misguided understanding of American exceptionalism, the same hubris that has dismantled every previous empire in world history; and for being far too slow to root out the deepest hatreds of racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and its latest manifestation, anti-Islamism [I don’t like Islamophobia since the word means fear, when we should be calling it what it is, a form of hatred.]

A version of this post was about to be published just prior to the visit of Pope Francis to the USA. If the affect and feeling of the previous paragraphs suggest a sense of deep despair, that would be a correct reading. But in the immediate aftermath of that extraordinary visit to Washington, New York City and Philadelphia, it seems appropriate to revisit those feelings. What was extraordinary to observe over the several days was Pope Francis’ unwavering demonstration of caring and effective leadership. Unafraid to challenge the deepest self-destructive impulses in the USA and the bureaucratic obstructionism in the UN, he quietly, powerfully, effectively called for values of compassion and caring over self-aggrandizement and radical autonomy. He did so with no troops, no great dramatic gestures, and no real political power. But he did model the power of soft-spoken authentic conviction, small symbolic yet humbly authentic acts, a palpable sense of transcendent presence and the courage to address the most existential challenges of our time.

A story I told on Facebook just after it happened: I attended a large interfaith gathering outside of the UN to express support for the signing of the important revised Sustainability Goals. When it ended I walked the 30 blocks to our home. There was little choice since traffic was simply at a standstill, but pedestrians were able to move – until I got to 64th Street. There the sidewalks and streets were fully blocked and many hundreds of us were held in place by the police barricades. If you know New Yorkers, that would not be welcomed cheerfully. However, two minutes later, the Papal motorcade drove by and I saw something rare: all of these hundreds and hundreds of cynical and world-weary New Yorkers who just happened to be at that intersection erupted in a spontaneous cheer and applause. Every cell phones snapped away and when I continued on my way, all I could hear around me was person after person telling someone of their remarkable serendipitous experience. No it was not the same as happening upon a political leader, or even a well-known sports star or celebrity. This was something so universal, and genuine in these responses. That is leadership, and, as we have seen, that is how one uses words and actions to enable change worth making.

It remains to be seen if this visit was simply a flickering light in a political world gone far too dark or the dawn of a sunrise that can purify the soul and cleanse the spirit. The early evidence is mixed – there are those who wasted no time in distancing themselves from the message and, with one notable exception, there has been little reason to see a diminution in the nonsensical and divisive rhetoric from too many aspiring politicians. Will a nation, of all faiths or none in thrall to this insist that this behavior and these words unacceptable for those wishing to be leaders? As Pope Francis has returned to the Vatican, we have been shown a better way to lead… and to speak. As we have said, words really do matter.

Words Really Do Matter – Use Them Wisely and Ethically

August 11th, 2015

Richard Marker

Well, I hadn’t planned to add to the noise surrounding the unconscionable pre-presidential campaign – in the United States. I really hadn’t.


Many of you know that I am a proud member of the National Speakers Association, and by extension of the Global Speakers Federation, a professional affiliation of those around the USA and elsewhere in the world who earn a significant part of our livelihood as paid speakers. Public Speaking is a competence that has given me great gratification, and enabled me to give presentations in 39 countries on 5 continents over my career. [Australia, what are you waiting for?]

At the recent annual convention, one of the morning plenary sessions was devoted to guest presenters who had lived through or witnessed horrific experiences, were changed by them, and who had deep and abiding messages based on them. I don’t exactly know what process was used to decide whom to invite or which messages were best to convey to a group of 1700 professional speakers, but I, for one, found the morning to be thought-provoking even if I myself might have chosen some other, equally challenging, topics.

At the luncheon that followed, however, a surprising number of folks sitting around the tables complained. “We didn’t come here to be depressed or to engage in political discourse; we came to be uplifted and to enhance our skills.”

I confess that I was surprised. After all, we make our living through words and ideas. To be sure, some of our colleagues are wonderful entertainers, musicians, or comedians. But most of us, including humorists and musicians, are purveyors of ideas. And we use words, in speech and in writing, to convey those ideas. Words matter. How we say things matters.

What we say matters as well. We should weigh not simply how to get applause, or a chuckle, or a return engagement, but also the value of those words, the ethics of those words, the power of those words to change experiences and lives. What was important to me, as a member of NSA/GSF that morning of the recent conference was that we were being reminded of how important and powerful and influential words can be, even if they leave us a bit uncomfortable and uneasy. I was disappointed in the segment of our professional group that so easily dismissed the value of being discomfited – if for no other reason than they so easily dismissed exactly one of the reasons for such a professional association to exist. Our association spends a good deal of time addressing the ethics of stories, quotations, and competition. We should spend an equal amount of time remembering that we must model the responsibility that accrues when we have a mastery of the spoken word, and the ethical mandate of truth when we have the command of the stage. These are not little things.

Which, unfortunately, brings me to what passes for political discourse these days. Leaving aside the frightening spectacle of Trump-ed up demagoguery on the world stage, what are we to make of the anti-scientific, anti-educational, implicitly racist and explicitly nativist comments of many other candidates? No matter how much one repeats a false mantra does not make it true, even if it may make it popular. Willful ignorance, no matter how cleverly stated or clothed in populist garb, must not be allowed to rise to legitimacy. The 20th Century, more than any other in world history, taught us the destructive nature of this kind of malignant discourse. The world, our world, the world in which we live, and the world we hope for our children, dare not risk a repetition in the 21st.

Those of us who earn our livelihood through words know more than most how powerful, transcendent, and transformative words can be. We owe it to ourselves, our audiences, and the public polity to insist that others are held to the ethical standards we must demand of ourselves. We, all of us, need no less.

The ICYMI Series – Why Strategic Plans Fail

March 9th, 2015

Richard Marker

This is re-posting of one of our most popular and requested posts.


Why Strategic Plans Fail

In a word: “Implementation.”

Now, as an old-time radio personality used to say, for the rest of the story.

There have been a slew of articles and talks recently raising questions about the efficacy of strategic plans, planning, and planners. As one whose livelihood has included strategy planning in the private, non-profit, and now the foundation and philanthropy sectors, I have to say that I concur with the skepticism, but disagree that failure is inevitable.

It is not at all uncommon to be contracted to help with a strategy issue and discover that other planners have been there before. In many cases, beautifully crafted plans, filled with charts, power points, and eloquent jargon sit gathering dust in someone’s office. with nothing to show for the effort and dollars. Why? A few of the generic reasons for failure:

1. Pre-determined outcomes. The client told the strategy planner what result they expected before beginning. And, yes, there are many in the field who are comfortable delivering that message. It may make the CEO happy to be vindicated by an “outside” expert, but not surprisingly, little new strategy and few new directions emerge from a pre-determined outcome. Many of us, me included, will not take such contracts, but I understand those who do: if a CEO hires them, the CEO is the client and, unless otherwise agreed upon, it is her/his approval that matters. One can readily imagine that few others in the organization have much confidence in such a study, and have few incentives to embrace it, but the consultant will have done what the client asked and paid for.

2. Too few stakeholders. In developing a strategic direction, there is no magic number of those who should have a say. However, it is important to make sure that those who have to endorse it and those who have to implement it are involved early on. It need not and in most cases cannot include every possible individual, but the process must have credibility to the key stakeholders if its conclusions are to be taken seriously. If not addressed early in the process, or if an organization chooses to automatically discount or exclude key stakeholders, the credibility, will be suspect and thus the ultimate implementation will likely fail.

A related example is an unwillingness to include outside stakeholders. In one case, an organization simply believed its own hype and tried to develop strategies from the misperceptions of their own self-image. Reluctantly, at my insistence, they went kicking and screaming to see their competition. They were shocked by the degree to which others had simply outpaced them in the quality and effectiveness in what they did. I was by no means their first strategy planner but I was the first who insisted that their stakeholder list include a broader range of input. [This story has a good ending, but any further details would necessarily identify the client.]

3. All too often plans are too abstract and/or don’t include an understanding of the culture which pervades an organization. When I was recruited by one of the large well-known strategy groups 20+ years ago, our discussions diverged when I expressed my commitment to implementation and the inclusion of corporate culture within the strategy. At that time, less so today, the response was unequivocal: we do strategy; it is up to the client to implement it. To understand the importance of this, all one has to do is look at the long list of failed corporate mergers over the years. Pure strategy made them look like a slam-dunk; real cultural differences made them an air ball.

4. The new plan is too far reaching. When I was heading a foundation, we partnered with many other foundations in support of new and innovative ideas. In one case, one of the partner foundations felt that a boutique program we were jointly funding was too good and should be brought to scale. A planning consultant was hired who produced a textbook plan for how a small and promising organization can be ramped up to have a national reach. The plan was elegant and thorough. However, it didn’t account for two crucial realities: there was no internal competence or commitment to such a massive re-make, and by becoming a new national player, it became vulnerable to larger full service competitors. The plan was too far reaching. The organization closed within a year.

5. The plan is not ambitious enough. The flip side of this kind of thinking is a strategy plan that is too cautious, barely incremental, and does not compel any kind of change at all. It should be remembered that any planning or evaluation process is, by definition, an intervention. There is nothing wrong if a serious strategy planning process reveals that an organization is at the top of their game and the most respected in what they do. [Wouldn’t that be nice?] However, it is hard to imagine an organization that is excellent across the board, or doesn’t need to anticipate changes in demography or utilization patterns, or need to enhance professional and board succession. A plan needs to be reaching enough to get even star performers to consider how to respond to tomorrow’s challenges.

6. Lack of an Implementation Plan. Change doesn’t just happen, it rarely happens smoothly, and it becomes chaotic without a plan. Now, in the current discourse, there is room for disruptive change; indeed I myself have been contracted to “disrupt” so that an organization’s stasis is shaken up sufficiently to begin to hear and see things differently. But once that has begun and a new direction is set, it needs management of the agreed upon changes. As suggested in #3 above, implementation is not simply a listing of what has to be done. It needs to have a mix of short-term victories, mid-term targets, and emerging long term changes. Change needs to account for the inevitable, and sometimes legitimate, pockets of résistance. It needs to recognize the style of decision-making and power. And it needs to be sufficiently adaptive to adjust to efforts that simply missed the mark even if the longer-term goals are valid. Finally, change needs to have a shepherd – preferably with appropriate authority or status – who “gets it” and is able to manage this complex process.

7. An Orphan Process. Transitions within an organization can create an orphan planning process. Turnover among professionals and volunteer leadership is normal. Since any planning process takes time, the planning facilitator may be working at an agreed upon pace but those who owned the process are no longer there. It happens! In this context, it is not surprising to find that reports are prepared, submitted, acknowledged, paid for, and shelved. It is possible to pre-empt this dynamic if the caveats of #2 above are followed, but it isn’t guaranteed. After all, does a new CEO want to start out by endorsing the vision and change processes determined by a predecessor? Rarely.

The cautionary tales are clear. But good strategy can and does happen. Avoiding these 7 pitfalls ups the chances for success. And saves a good chunk of wasted time and money along the way.

Talent? Leadership? Really, it is all about Culture

January 26th, 2015

Richard Marker

Did you know that in the philanthropy and non-profit world we have no followers, only leaders? How else can one explain that every community, every organization, every affinity group, and who knows how many others recruit actively for their leadership training/development programs?

Given all of these leadership programs, it makes one wonder whom they are leading? And how many of these leaders were actually elected as leaders by the very people they are supposed to lead? Or, perhaps, how many have been designated as “leaders” because a program or organization would like them to become leaders and successors to current leaders – some day? How many of those volunteers were designated for these programs, not because of their demonstrated leadership assets but because they have the financial assets to make them desirable future board members? And how many of the professional directed programs always seem to select the very same people who were already selected and trained and funded by other organizations and programs?

The most striking evidence that too many of these programs are either flawed, or at least mislabeled, is the hue and cry about the current and future leadership vacuum in the entire philanthropy and non-profit sector.

But can it be true that there is a paucity of capable leaders in an entire sector? Can it really be that all of these well funded programs, national and local, are inadequate? And is it credible that, for all the many thousands of highly motivated, intelligent, capable employees, only a tiny few have demonstrated the talent for “leadership”? Isn’t it possible, indeed quite likely, that something else is going on. Let’s see….

1. Traditionally, the non-profit sector has trained its professionals for careers in the sector, on the assumption that one will spend ones professional time in the sector and work ones way up a career ladder. However, that bears scant relationship to the way talented people’s work life works these days. Once upon a time, people entered a field and stayed. Today people go in and out of sectors – a non-profit professional one year, a private sector one the next, a volunteer leader along the way. Any program built on old assumptions of sector boundaries is bound to come up short. Frankly, I think this inter-sector commuting is to be encouraged and is likely to strengthen both the for- and not-for-profit sectors.

2. For that matter, any organization which treats its staff as if they owe long term fealty 24/7 and assumes that those very staff people intend to remain for 10, 15, 20 years, is delusional. [Ok, maybe not delusional, just out of date.] Most workers – and their supervisors – are always contemplating their next stop, and they will be thinking that way even if an employer mandates loyalty. Indeed such overt expectations of loyalty probably hasten turnover, and most assuredly will guarantee that employees will try to keep their career ambitions secret and under wraps. I firmly believe that supervisors and executives who openly acknowledge transiency will find their staff more likely to remain longer, will be more open about how to frame job descriptions in a more productive way, and are likely to lead to greater professional collaborations. [When I was an executive/supervisor/ceo, I would offer to help everyone who reported to me to update his or her resume every year. Everyone knew that I wasn’t trying to give a subversive message to leave, so colleagues were always very straight. Amazing what I learned, and how easy it was to adjust job assignments to meet emerging and evolving professional interests!]

3. Sadly, one still hears old-fashioned canards that those in the non-profit world don’t work as hard as those in the for-profit sector, or that if they were really talented, they would be in more financially remunerative fields. Worse, there are still those who assume that a non-profit career should be the equivalent of a vow of poverty. “Why are you asking for a more competitive salary, or fringes? You chose to work in the sector; you shouldn’t expect more.” It is simply counterproductive and wrong. So let’s be clear: Only boards and funders of non-profits can make sure that these destructive myths are laid to rest and that staff are properly recognized and compensated.

4. The flip side is another canard, just as pernicious – that too many in this sector are getting rich, with bloated overhead and nothing to show for it. They cite the periodic “revelations” of $million non-profit salaries implying that non-profit leaders are abusing charitable dollars if they receive such munificence. Why, some ask, support a sector which is so frivolous with hard earned contributions? As I have previously written and lectured in numerous places, I feel that this is a fake issue, reinforced by the information gathered by 990’s [he American tax return for non-profits] that only asks for info on the 5 highest paid employees. Frankly, I care more about the lowest paid than the highest paid. If a non-profit is underpaying its employees or denying them appropriate benefits, that is much worse than overpaying a few senior executives. As suggested in #3 above, only funders and boards can insist that this change.

5. Another area which has garnered a good deal of attention lately is investing in talent. [e.g., Talent Philanthropy] Advocates argue, correctly, that the non-profit world is shortsighted in seeing training and professional development as a luxury, or a special benefit only for the highest achievers. These advocates demonstrate that underinvesting in staff abbreviates tenure, leads to greater dissatisfaction, and incrementally lowers performance. However, there has been a missing ingredient in the arguments of most of these advocates Most have not addressed the structural underpinning of why this is so hard to implement consistently over time and throughout the sector: if staff training, conference attendance, etc. are viewed as an independent expense line, those lines are the most vulnerable at budget times. I have always argued [and, I am proud to say, implemented when I was still a senior executive in the field] that staff training should be a non-negotiable part of the benefits package of every employee, in much the same way as health, retirement, vacation, etc. should be. Unless such a commitment is built into the way in which professional employees are paid, and the budget is structured accordingly, this will constantly be an uphill battle at budget time and will require constant advocacy with all too sporadic successes.

6. Which brings me to “Ageism”. Typically, “ageism” that refers to prejudice against those more senior. There isn’t much new I can add to this part of the equation [although I can personally attest that it exists.] But, less addressed, and more complicated, is the more subtle ageism toward younger folks.

NextGen – How, you ask, can that be true when there is a surfeit of programs targeting “NextGen’s”? Aren’t they the most favored and fought over cohort? Perhaps, but I don’t buy it. How? I have said many times over the past few years that I really don’t like the phrase NextGen. One only hears it in the non-profit sphere. Imagine the NYSE telling Mark Zuckerberg that he is a NextGen and will simply have to wait until he is old enough to have an IPO for Facebook. Of course they will provide a mentor and a 6-month training program of seminars and peer learning experiences in preparation, after which the established c-suite leaders would pass judgment on his eventual suitability to join them.

Yes, this takes this to absurdity, but in fact I once spoke to the annual meeting of the top leadership of a major non-profit at which their outstanding “young leader” was honored. That “young leader” was a 50-year-old dot-com multimillionaire retiree!

All of this underscores an irony. If we are being honest, it should more accurately be ThisGen. Most of the ways in which we communicate, a great deal of the vocabulary we use to describe our daily activities, the technology we use every moment of the day, are all informed by a younger generation. The for-profit sector does everything possible to empower and include them. In the non-profit sphere they are only NEXT-gen. It is time to stop the self-defeating patronizing of this talent and make sure that there are fully empowered voting spaces at the grown-up tables.

In the workplace and on volunteer boards, there is an emergent problematic dynamic and confrontation. On the one hand, healthy and energetic people with experience and unfinished ambition are often discounted for no other reason than their age. Younger people, impatiently, don’t want to wait around for them to leave, so they leave. The challenge for all sectors, especially the volunteer driven one, is how to synergize the attribute of “judgment” which often does accrue with time, and the attribute of “knowledge”, increasingly the purview of those who are younger Those few organizations and foundations that have figured this out are setting admirable standards for all.

7. I believe that everyone who works at the professional level in the non-profit world should sit on the board of an organization other than the one that pays his or her salary. It doesn’t matter how big, what its mission is, or how large the board. Of course, it is highly unlikely that the Metropolitan Museum is going to be interested in a second year non-profit program professional, but there might be a small community based group which would be thrilled to take advantage of the energy, knowledge, and enthusiasm of such a person. And it is of mutual benefit: the professional becomes a much better professional, with much more perspective, after wearing a volunteer hat and an outstanding volunteer when he or she commutes out of the non-profit sector. Want to influence a board? Think like one and model that you understand what it means. Now, I know that many community foundations and junior leagues have observer-ship mentored programs. That is fine, but that isn’t what I am talking about: I mean actually being on a board, making decisions on budget, policy, strategy, and even personnel. Talk about real leadership development…

Underlying all of this is “organizational culture”. All of the suggestions in 1-7 above are unlikely to be very effective if the organizational culture does not endorse or support them. An organization which talks better than it walks, an organization which espouses empowerment but doesn’t empower, an organization that bemoans a dearth of leadership but in fact belittles and patronizes its professionals by regularly hiring outsiders for leadership positions, an organization that still thinks in hierarchical terms when flat organizations are the norm, an organization that wonders why creativity is always somewhere else but squelches any new idea with endless sign offs and consensus processes, an organization that “demands” 24/7 but guarantees nothing in return, an organization which treats staff as in-service to volunteer leadership as opposed to being their professional partners… Do you recognize any of these? All of the talk about talent and leadership is for naught if an organization doesn’t have a culture that allows for growth, risk, reach, and ambition. None of this is new. All of these ideas have been talked about and written about, and implemented…in some places. Evidence of how elusive these goals and how rare their achievement are, though, are the continuing emergence of “new” leadership and talent training programs.

Pogo’s old bon mot still applies: “we have met the enemy and it is us.” Organizational transition and leadership development needn’t be elusive aspirations. The methods of cultivating and training are within the reach of most organizations, often with only small but meaningful cultural adaptations.

On their own, very few non-profit organizations can make these changes – and make them stick. Only boards and funders can ensure that they do.

Leadership – 6 lessons learned along my long and winding career path

November 6th, 2012

Richard Marker

Note to readers: While most of the postings on this blog are directly related to the philanthropy sector, occasionally I post about topics which only incidentally relate to that world. But, since succession, leadership, and professional nurturing are crucial to the non-profit world, and of course of great interest to funders, I have decided to post this piece on the Wise Philanthropy site.

Much is being written on leadership transitions these days in the non-profit world in general and especially in the philanthropy and grantmaking world. It is a worthy topic – not simply because of the much-touted wealth transfer, and not simply because of the existence of multiple adult generations for the first time in history, but because it forces serious discussion about the nature of work and the workplace in the sector, and what leadership really means at this time in history.

Since each of us learns from his or her own experiences, I will share some of mine, including a couple of very sobering lessons I learned over the last 45 years. Perhaps these will translate into your own situations as well.

1. Charisma is not the same as leadership.

I learned this one very early in my carer, and it was a painful lesson. It was the late 60’s, I was working part-time as a university chaplain while finishing my studies. My hair was long, my opinions liberated, and my style activist. I didn’t do it purposely, but suddenly I found that I had groupies. Hard to imagine now, but I really did. [Lest you think this was purely my imagination, 30+ years after that time, we happened upon someone at a conference in Nice. When he heard my name, his reaction was an emphatic “you were my guru!”]

I really believed that I was creating something new and good and that all these followers were taking something away that mattered – beyond hanging around with other followers of someone with followers. And even with the advantage of retrospect, I don’t think I was manipulative or particularly ego driven. Rather, I was kind of a new breed, had no mentor, and few models, in a world which was in the midst of radical reinvention. And then…

And then I accepted a wonderful position at Brown. It was the first of its kind, I was recruited energetically, and, besides, my graduate career was concluding and a full-time job like that was hard to turn down. In taking it, I did not break any contracts, implied or written, nor any public commitments to the contrary. But sure enough, within days of the announcement, my flock had suddenly dispersed – disappeared actually. Lesson learned: A cult of personality, even if unintended and benign, is not a sufficient way to build an organization or a community.

2. Being a community builder is insufficient

…Thus when I went to Brown, I swore to myself that what I would build would not be based on personality but rather on the quality of community. Delegation, empowerment, bottom-up understanding of needs and wants would characterize both my leadership style and the community I wanted to help bring into being. It was easy at Brown – bright and energetic students, world-class faculty, a prestigious university which fostered allegiance and affection, and an era of creativity. It was hard to go wrong, and for the most part I didn’t. At least for most. Until….

…Until I was reviewed for tenure and discovered that there was a pocket of disenchanted students. The tenure reviewers could never quite put their finger on what the complaint was about since I seemed not to be “guilty” of any sin of commission that this group could identify – just that they wanted “something more.” Since the overall review was sufficiently positive, I received tenure and went on to five additional productive years at Brown until I chose a different career path and moved on.

But during that time, as I found myself in a number of elected leadership roles, I came to understand that the small group of critics were right. No, not that I shouldn’t have received tenure but that they did deserve something more. And that something more was leadership. They had no problem with the value of facilitating competing claims on communal time and resources, they didn’t object to the empowerment of faculty and students and staff, and they surely respected that I had fostered a vibrant community. But to them, all of that together did not add up to leadership. Sometimes there really is a need to be vocal, to take positions, to articulate a vision, to be willing to rally the troops. Leadership is about being willing to engage folks to reach beyond the immediately reachable. Leadership is about being a thought leader and not only a good educator. No, these critics were not advocating that a personality driven community is better than an enfranchised one, but… Lesson learned: that the leader needs to know when to lead.

3. Leadership requires trust

The next stop along the way was more purely executive. There were senior professionals in many locations who reported to me, and they in turn had staff and facilities and boards and programs and budgets for which they were responsible. I will spare the reader the details, but suffice it to say that the institution was at a very low ebb when I assumed leadership – average professional tenure was less than a year and salaries were the lowest among comparable systems throughout the country. You can imagine that the esprit de corp and trust within the organization was at the same low level.

Sadly, the board that hired me did not know any of this – a commentary in itself. When they were made aware of it, they immediately tried to rectify one part of it: raise my salary to be more in line with my peers. When I asked about everyone else’s, their response was – “we’ll get to that.” They meant well, but my response was to turn the increase down.

My decision was neither heroic nor altruistic, but preservation. In a system without trust, which i had committed myself to righting, how could I credibly be the only beneficiary? Had I taken that increase, as deserved and legitimate as it was, I would have lost the trust of those I needed the most. Had I taken the raise, my formal authority would have been unchanged, but my effectiveness would have been severely damaged. Leaders, I came to understand, have to earn and merit their leadership role. [By the way, it took one more year, but within a year, all of the salaries were adjusted to a more appropriate level.] Lesson learned: An ascribed leadership role may give one power, but true leadership, the kind which inspires followers, must be earned.

4. Leaders don’t demand of others what they don’t demand of themselves, and leaders must model what they expect of others.

Unlike many my chronological age but very like most of those a generation or two younger than I, I have had 5 distinct careers in my professional lifetime. All of them emerged organically, following changed priorities, interests, and passions – and in most cases, newly learned expertise. Each was built on what I did before, but would not have been anticipated or planned much before they happened. It is true, though, that I was always wondering and thinking about what was to be next.

As an executive, supervisor, boss – whichever – I assumed that everyone who reported to me, and everyone who reported to those people, was also thinking about their own future. I could foolishly pretend that their loyalty and fealty would be absolute or I could acknowledge their healthy ambitions and impatience. I chose the latter. And I tried to model that commitment: For but one example, I offered to meet with everyone once each year to help update their resumes. Doing so served several purposes: it helped me understand how each professional saw himself or herself at that moment in his or her career, it identified sources of anxiety or dissatisfaction with components of their current job assignments, and it eliminated the all too common secret searching when a professional fears that exploring a new position will incur retribution. There was an unintended positive organizational consequence: I would learn that minor job assignment adjustments could rejuvenate professionals, and often simply switching components of different people’s jobs would satisfy several people at once. Lesson learned: Leadership is hard to sustain without a transparent commitment to allow others to grow and fulfill their own aspirations.

5. Leaders cultivate leadership in others.

Encouraging others to assume authentic leadership roles also serves to enhance succession and legitimate empowerment. For example, when working in the non-profit sector, I believed strongly that I had an obligation to serve on boards of other non-profits. It made me a better professional and executive, and, one hopes, it added depth to my board service for those organizations. For many in our sector, I knew, this view was not the norm. It was not uncommon to hear from colleagues on the non-profit side of the table that they viewed that their work itself was their communal service – they need not contribute time or money since their work is their contribution. After all, they argued, their salaries are lower, their support systems more fragile, and their work hours as extensive as the private sector.

I felt quite differently [and I am pleased to say that my view is not unique]: Those whose livelihood is dependent on the voluntary sector should themselves model a commitment to that sector. I welcomed invitations to serve.

Therefore you are not surprised that I also encouraged those who reported to me to do the same. [I could not mandate this, nor could I hold it against someone who chose not to, but I could encourage.] Colleagues were always glad that they did this. It allowed them to use their inside knowledge of what it means to work in the sector, it gave them perspectives on the kinds of decisions board members should or must make, and allowed them to be seen as leaders. I don’t recall any ever complaining that it was a waste of their time.

Similarly, it is crucial that professionals be trusted with real decision-making. Delegation must be real. We all have met executives who posit that they delegate and want their “reports” to exercise autonomy, only to overrule those who are “under” them. No one is fooled – why take risks or bother to make decisions if they are undercut? It renders their own supervision vacuous. My view is a different one: Unless there was real and palpable institutional damage by a decision, I supported decentralized decisions – even if those decisions might have differed from my own had I been in their seat. How else does one learn leadership? How else does one leverage the best energies in a large and sprawling system? How else does one cultivate one’s successor? [I was once privy to this conversation: The chair of the board of a large multifaceted non-profit asked the ceo of that organization who was his #2; “who can take over for you?” His answer – “Really no one.” The Chair responded, “then you aren’t doing your job.”] Lesson learned: True leadership must cultivate the future leaders of the entity one heads.

6. Leadership requires courage.

I learned this final lesson much too late, after I stopped being employed by others. My current leadership roles are strictly in the volunteer realm since I have been mostly self-employed for the last 10 years. At this time, one of my professional competencies, and a significant source of my income is public speaking [something I do much better than I did earlier in my career – a story for another time]. Much to my surprise, and chagrin, many people who have known me for a long time have commented that they never knew I felt so strongly and have such explicit opinions about many of the things I speak about. For me, these are not new opinions. And I surely never realized that they were hidden. I suddenly discovered how much I must have been self-censoring all those years. Without intending to do so, in being sensitive to the organizations or institutions I worked for or with, I must have over-neutralized my own public views.

Now, to be sure, it is the responsible thing to not overdo the power of the podium, and to be aware of the impact of one’s words. But representation is not the same as leadership. Leadership requires risk, leadership requires opinions, leadership demands that some opinions may be unpopular, leadership means a willingness to advocate change, leadership requires courage. While I can point to times in my career when I did indeed exercise courage, they had largely been contained and on a small stage. Yet over the years, I have had many options on bigger stages and I didn’t know, or didn’t have the courage, to take advantage to push newer thinking, change views, move the spirit, and really lead. My regret: that it took me so long to recognize and accept this indispensable attribute of leadership. Lesson learned: True leadership requires risk, courage, and opportunity – and it is never too late.

Size Matters

August 8th, 2010

Richard Marker

Not since the Madoff business have I been asked for my opinion by more people than I have since Warren Buffett began his highly publicized assault on his very rich peers on behalf of big money philanthropy.

Some of the questions I have received are predictably voyeuristic – the endless fascination with the lives of the superrich and famous. Hate to disappoint, but even when I might have something interesting to say along these lines I wouldn’t tell the press.

Most of the questions, though, reflect a real puzzlement that goes beyond fascination. What does it mean about the current state of philanthropy? What will it mean for the independent sector? What are the implications for the rest of us who may be altruistic and generous but can hardly match the munificence of the 40 richest? What will happen with all that money?
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“WiseGen”… If only!

February 25th, 2010

Richard Marker

Last week, a wonderful young leader, Seth Cohen of Atlanta, wrote a blog piece advocating that younger leaders and funders would do well to learn from and not dismiss the wisdom of those whose life experience might provide welcome insights for them. He called that older group “WiseGen.”

At first blush, I was inclined to read this as a “shout out” to my own work. After all, for several years, the name of this blog, the address of our website, and our domain name are all ‘’, my book is “Saying ‘Yes’ Wisely”. Implicit is that there are things that one can learn from the real life experience of many generations of funders, and that the greatest gift I can give in my teaching and philanthropy advising is to help apply the wisdom of others to individual decision making.
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Why the competition?

July 13th, 2007

Richard Marker

I heard it again last week. A new senior professional working for a foundation couldn’t understand it. “Where is the collegiality,” he wondered? “Aren’t all of us on the same side? Many of my new colleagues won’t even take my calls or meet with me for advice.”

He is by no means the first to voice these questions. It is a plaint i have heard regularly in the years since i myself have been on this side of the table and teach and advise lots of colleagues – both new and experienced. They have found a marked inconsistency among foundation professionals, some being more than generous with their time, ideas, coaching – but a surprisingly large number who were open to none of the above.
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