Tag Archives: leadership

Leadership Crises and Temperature Failures

My thinking about leadership, sparked by the book For the Common Good, hasn’t just been limited to probing what leadership should look like in my own life.

I’ve also been thinking about our need for public leadership, on a grant scale, to confront the adaptive challenges we face.

Leadership requires choosing among competing values, and that’s hard for a lot of people to do, particularly when they are trying to simultaneously satisfy many different actors. I’m thinking about elected officials, obviously, but also nonprofit leaders and others to whom we look for leadership on the core problems plaguing our society.

For the Common Good talks about a ‘conspiracy to avoid’ dealing with our toughest issues and I thought, yeah, that’s a lot what Congress looks like these days. Or nonprofit staff meetings.

The parts of the book that I found the most profound, even revolutionary, are about the need for leadership equal to the hardest challenges we face. That means not just new learning and new application–thereby surpassing a technical challenge–but also shared responsibility.

We can only have a chance to solve these adaptive problems if we actively seek out tough interpretations of what we’re seeing, instead of defaulting to a search for benign explanations.

We can only bring enough people along with us if we raise the temperature so much that reluctant ‘followers’ feel compelled to act. That means organizing, since little can raise the heat like grassroots pressure.

And we can only hold ourselves together during the difficult work of meeting these adaptive problems head on if we have the ‘bridging social capital’ that can make adaptive change more palatable. This, of course, is another way that inequality hurts us.

A really cool thing for me was that the book featured David Toland, whose work with Thrive Allen County in southeast Kansas has been part of my evaluation work for the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City, specifically on some of these points about the type of leadership that is needed for a community to embrace change in pursuit of progress around adaptive challenges (in this case, obesity rates and poor health outcomes in the community). He found data that reveal crisis, but a culture of complacency. So he faced a leadership task of galvanizing momentum and supporting people through change, before he could tackle the substance of the problem.

The question, then, is of course, “Where have all the leaders gone?”

But this isn’t a post bemoaning the loss of ‘statesmen’. I am not nostalgic for any particular time past, nor do I believe that any particular period or culture has a lock on this kind of courageous, visionary, public leadership.

No, I’m not thinking as much about the ‘who’–who will be the leaders ready and willing to carry the mantle–but, instead, about the ‘why’.

As in, why don’t we demand this of those who would be our leaders?

More Reviews, just in time for summer

It’s never too early to start planning out your reading calendar.

To help, I have some comments on books I have read recently, starting with a book by someone I am glad to call a friend and colleague, Kansas Leadership Center Director Ed O’Malley. The book, For the Common Good, is about civic leadership, and I have posts about it today and tomorrow: first, today, thoughts about how we understand–and misunderstand–leadership, and, tomorrow, a plea for the urgency of our need for civic leadership up to the challenges that confront us.

The central premise of the book, and core to the Leadership Center’s approach, is the contention that leadership is for everyone, an activity, not a position.

And, if everyone and anyone can lead, then the next step, clearly, is to think about what leadership looks like for us, in a very personal way.

I have never really considered myself much of a leader. Leadership is a force for change, and, while I am proud and committed to be part of movements for social change, I more often play the role of foot soldier, rather than marshal.

But this book has me thinking somewhat differently about that self-characterization, and about the extent to which I have been content to be led, rather than stepping up and stepping out as a leader myself.

In the midst of this soul-searching, some of the questions that I’m pondering:

  • For the Common Good exhorts all leaders to be aware of our ‘defaults’ and open to the potential that we may need to actively work against them. It’s conscious choices that make the difference between compelling, effective leadership and coasting, often, and the process of combating our own inertia begins with self-awareness. For me, this is thinking about how much I love living in the comfort of technical problems, where I can lull myself into thinking that I have some measure of control. I need to get more comfortable with chaos, which, for me, has become harder as I balance my public and private roles; since my home life can be somewhat chaotic, my public tolerance for the same has declined.
  • Related to this idea of resetting our defaults, we need to know the story others tell about us. I am acutely aware of how, in the roles I play now, I get less good feedback than I used to–my students have obvious incentives not to honestly confront me with my failings, and the consultant role distorts this feedback loop somewhat, too, particularly when someone else is paying the bill. But getting this perspective is critical, so I need to find ways to cultivate it.
  • Leaders have to attend to process, even when, like for me, we much prefer to focus on content. How people come together matters. How decisions are made matters. And how people are feeling about all of those things matters. We can’t navigate those realms without taking the time to ‘check’ our processes for change. For me, that means resetting my own default that tends to rush to decision point. Knowing that is the first step toward doing something about it.
  • A specific type of process-attending that is crucial is the ability to speak to loss. After all, if leadership is about sparking change, well, something is always lost in change. We have to resist the temptation to label as apathy what is more correctly understood as concern about the opportunity costs of change. Helping people to move past each requires very different interventions.

I know it’s not necessarily ‘beach reading’, but For the Common Good uses real stories of leaders (in Kansas) to illustrate leadership principles, and I found it very readable and, obviously, engaging. I’d love to hear from those who have worked with the Leadership Center, or Ed, or read the book, or who have other leadership recommendations for me, as I continue to think about how this particular journey unfolds in my own life.

Leadership for Change: What difference does ‘young’ make?

I guess that I’m still ‘young’ in the nonprofit leadership realm, but I certainly feel my aging acutely, given that I spend so much time with my students and with truly young activists in social justice struggles.

While I feel that I straddle, somewhat, the young professional and older generations, I am fascinated by the contributions and the perspectives of Millennial leaders and their peers who fall just outside that generation. So are the folks at Building Movement, which recently released a report on younger leaders in social justice movements and the challenges they face in building sustainable, thriving organizations with capacity for large-scale social change.

My questions, in reading the findings from these interviews, are the extent to which young leaders approach these challenges any differently than others, as well as what generational shifts in nonprofit executive power might mean for the future of the sector, and our causes.

The highlights from the interview summaries:

  • Leading social change organizations into the future requires inspiring visions for large-scale change; new methods for organizing (including seeing technology as a means to connect with people, instead of being distracted by its ‘shininess’); working across ideological, sectoral, and other boundaries; and commitment to building scale and pursuing collective impact.
  • Job satisfaction is high, which bodes well for long-term staying power and for the ability of these leaders to recruit others to their causes. We can never make social change work as appealing as it should be if the image other aspiring leaders have of us is as overworked martyrs, sacrificing our happiness on an altar of ‘good deeds’. These leaders seem to get that, and they express a joy of purpose that should inspire imitation. This doesn’t mean that they don’t feel strained, though, and I was discouraged by the concerns expressed by young leaders hoping to parent in the near future. We need to build in ways to help these leaders balance competing demands–so that they don’t compete so much–as an investment in their longevity and health, as well as in their strategic abilities.
  • For some of these young leaders, transformational leadership–using their organizations and their positions to change society–seems to come much more easily than the more mundane obligations to run actual organizations. I think a lot of this stems from inadequate preparation to run programs and supervise staff (the latter being the greatest challenge mentioned), and from insufficient infrastructure to mentor and develop the other layers of staff that organizations need to thrive. Maybe it’s because I have begun to see the world through a consulting lens, but I do think that there are opportunities here to use technical assistance and capacity development to support nonprofit leaders through the work of culture change and mentoring and skill building.
  • Foundations and donors play a huge role in equipping organizations to meet future challenges, both in terms of the amount of funding needed (we have to change our expectations about how many staff are needed to administer well-functioning organizations) but also in the structure of funding flows. We need multi-year general support, attention to base-building, and investment in broad and sweeping visions. We need funding partners, in every sense of that word.
  • There are young leaders of color currently making huge contributions to social change work, despite the way that lack of diversity is often bemoaned by those in positions of power within movements. The challenge is not to bring more diverse representation to these organizations, then, but to build ladders of leadership development for the next ‘tier’ of leaders of color, to stop placing disproportionate demands on leaders to represent their communities (advisory boards, anyone?), and to provide the necessary resources to help these leaders succeed.
  • Young leaders don’t often see themselves staying with a given organization for long, so organizations have to get much more comfortable with executive transition. None of these leaders saw themselves moving out of social justice work, and many envision that they will stay in executive roles, but this generation is not wedded to an organization, so social change groups have to build identities that transcend individuals.

If you are a young leader in a social change organization, how do you reflect on your experiences? How do you feel that you approach your work differently than your peers from other generations? Than young executives in other sectors?

What will it take to support your social transformation work, now and in the future?

It’s just an invitation

My colleague, Jake Lowen, for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect, said something the other day, when we were talking with a group of nonprofit advocates, that has stuck with me since.

The conversation was about what trips people up, when it comes to including grassroots strategies in their organizations’ advocacy. What barriers do organizations, particularly those that provide direct services (and, so, have built-in constituencies), face in building and activating their grassroots power?

There was a sort of shuffling around, really, as people identified some of the likely suspects: difficulty figuring out exactly how to ‘slice’ their issues so that people are motivated to get involved, figuring out the appropriate asks and how to move folks along a continuum of participation, constructing campaigns with authentic opportunities for leadership…

Then someone asked about the first step, how you get started, to “do grassroots”.

And that’s when Jake sort of turned this on its head.

He said that maybe that’s part of our problem, that we build this up in our heads like it’s some sort of totally separate ‘program’ that we do, that requires a whole new way of thinking, and working, and relating…

When, really, it’s just inviting others into your work.

It’s never doing alone what someone could do with you, and never doing yourself what someone else could do instead.

It’s remembering that how we pull things off matters, and that, when in doubt, we should always choose the path that engages people the most and draws in the most new allies.

It’s not rocket science.

It’s not even necessarily a campaign.

It’s asking people to join you, to be part of something with you, because you believe that they bring value and that there is beauty in walking together.

It’s just an invitation.

But it can make all the difference.

Forgetting Perfection

I wrote last month about how advocates need to get over what we don’t know, to jump into the fights where we, and what we know (partial though it is), are so needed.

I guess I’m on a “trust me, you’re good enough” kick, because one of the pieces of Soul of a Citizen that really spoke to me is this theme, that the only two things that differentiate those who are actively engaged in social change, from those who are not, is (1) how they see the world, as demanding their involvement and (2) how they see themselves, as integral, albeit small, parts of the solution.

In part, it relates to the concept of “good enough”, which comes from the parenting idea that caregivers should forget striving for perfection, because it really will make things worse, and should instead celebrate “good enough”, because that’s all kids really need to thrive, anyway.

And it’s also connected to the importance of understanding and accurately assessing activist leaders and social movements current and past, because unfairly and incorrectly viewing them as larger-than-life not only inappropriately reifies them, but, more importantly, it’s also a major deterrent to the activism of the rest of us, mere mortals though we are. (That’s a big part of the reason why I care what students today are and are not learning about our history, including the history of the fight for social justice.)

It’s not enough, then, to say, “we don’t all have to be (fill in the blank–Jane Addams, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day)”. The consolation we should instead be showering on each other goes more like, “who were they, anyway, but flawed human beings, just like us, who, nonetheless, did amazing things for justice, just like we can, too”. As an activist said in Soul of a Citizen, “it does us all a disservice when people who work for social change are presented as saints–so much more noble than the rest of us. We get a false sense that from the moment they were born they were called to act, never had doubts, were bathed in a circle of light” (p. 37). Shattering that myth reminds us that we stand just as good a chance as they did to change the world…maybe, given today’s technology and advances in human rights, even better.

And then, we start.

We start knowing that our skills are inadequate and our knowledge incomplete and, even, our commitment imperfect.

We stop trying to be martyrs, always focused on the cause, because we know that others are drawn to those struggles were people are having fun and living the kind of whole, full lives that they want for themselves, too.

We realize that standing up for our most sacred values isn’t about making ourselves into some, more noble person, but about becoming more fully human…more purely us.

We start treating ourselves a lot more like we treat our clients–as worthy, just as we are.

And, in so doing, we shed the last remaining excuse not to act.

And that’s…perfect.

Nonprofit Leadership: The Next Frontier

photo credit: ButterflySun via Flickr

I’ve had this report, Ready to Lead, on my desktop for a few months, but I just got around to reading it. If you share my concerns about the future of our nonprofit sector, are headed to executive leadership in a nonprofit organization yourself, and/or have questions about the leadership in your area of practice, you should read the whole report (it includes a thorough overview of the sample and methodology, so I’m not reiterating that either). Here, I’m highlighting some of the findings that have the most relevance for social workers, and for the organizations in which we work. In particular, although the authors of the report didn’t include this at all, there are some public policy approaches (big surprise!) that I think could help to address some of the challenges and gaps indicated by respondents.

I’d love to know what you think, not just about this report but about the state of leadership in your nonprofit. If you are a young professional, what do you see as your career trajectory? What influences your professional decisionmaking about organizations and positions within them? What skills and experiences must good nonprofit leaders possess? If you want to lead a nonprofit organization, do you feel ‘ready’ to do so? If not, what help do you need? What would help your current leadership to succeed?

Most provocative findings, and my thoughts:

  • By 2016, the nonprofit sector will need ~80,000 new managers per year! They have to come from somewhere, and, as we think about the future of social work and social work education, we have to figure out if we’re committed to ‘growing’ these leaders ourselves, and to really carving out a niche in nonprofit leadership, or if we’re going to see those positions go increasingly to individuals from the corporate world and/or from planning or nonprofit administration programs. It matters, I believe, what value perspective the leaders of our organizations share, but we have to acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of social workers choose a more direct practice/clinical track, and that that may mean that social workers increasingly find themselves working for non-social workers.
  • These worker preferences, in fact, continue to influence career decision making well into an individual’s advancement. Fifty-five percent of the sample (most of whom are already working in nonprofits) say that their interests or skills don’t align with executive leadership in nonprofits. Fear of distancing themselves from the work and/or reducing their job satisfaction were some of the primary concerns.
  • There’s not as much ‘hiring from within’ as in the for-profit sector–only ~1/3 of current executive directors were hired from their own organization, and 55% of survey respondents believe that they need to leave their current organizations in order to advance.
  • Not surprisingly, these experiences are different for women and people of color than for white men. While more people of color and foreign-born nonprofit workers aspire to executive leadership, white men in the sample were more likely to be on a leadership track, more likely to have received executive coaching, and more likely to say that they are currently ‘ready’ to lead. Obviously, this has major implications for social work education, which also tends to attract a majority white student body. If we’re going to truly reflect our society, and best equip our organizations with talented, skilled, prepared individuals with a desire to lead our organizations into the future, we have to aggressively recruit, actively mentor, and intentionally place more bright leaders of color.
  • Only 17% of respondents have a degree or certificate in nonprofit management or administration. Importantly, of those who do, relatively few feel that it, specifically, has prepared them for nonprofit leadership. Again, as we think about the future of our profession, we need to continually evaluate the skills and competencies that we transmit through our degree programs, communicating with nonprofit organizations about those skills they most need.
  • We need to confront the financial realities; many of our most talented nonprofit employees may leave nonprofits, especially as the economy improves, so that they can earn more money. One of the recommendations was that foundations invest in multiyear funding and institutional capital to allow for more adequate compensation packages and to facilitate succession planning. But here’s where public policy can come into play, too. Several respondents mentioned student loan debt as a major concern–obviously, more state and federal aid directly to higher education, as well as more generous financial aid packages, could reverse the tide of rising student debt and free graduates to make career decisions without worrying about default. Likewise, young nonprofit workers are particularly concerned about retirement savings; ensuring Social Security’s long-term solvency as well as adequacy, and restoring a measure of progressivity to pension/retirement systems could take some of this pressure off young workers during their careers.
  • And we can’t ignore the role that nonprofit organizational culture itself plays in creating and perpetuating this problem. Several respondents mentioned the ‘dated power structures’ that inhibit mentoring; the poor work/life balance; and the increasing demands on executive directors to do more with less as disincentives to their own pursuit of executive leadership. Addressing these factors as part of organizational advocacy strategies could make work life better for all those in nonprofits, improve agency functioning for clients, and, in the long-run, make these institutions easier to run, thus attracting more candidates for the job!
  • On privilege and leadership: Que viva Kennedy

    So, I know that blogs and traditional media outlets have been inundated with coverage of Senator Ted Kennedy’s life, public service, and death. Certainly many who knew his work and life much better than I have provided ample tribute and considerable analysis.

    I just have two things to add.

    I remember a rally for immigrant rights on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol building, listening to him speak and then to the rather amazing (it still brings tears to my eyes) sound of thousands of immigrants, most of whom spoke English as their second language, shouting “Kennedy” in a dozen different accents. Most didn’t know much about his family, or his legacy, but they knew what they heard and what they sensed: that, here, was a public official who wasn’t talking about ‘touchbacks’ or ‘guest workers’. He was talking about ‘justice’ and ‘America’ and ‘rights.’ That’s my first reflection on his role; at least from my encounters with him and with his office, while he was quite a pragmatic politician, he also had an understanding of his power, his electoral invincibility, and the freedom and responsibility that they bestowed on them. It was the only speech I can remember during my campaigns with immigrants hearing a member of Congress speak (in English, at least) about immigrants the same way that immigrants speak about, and to, themselves. It was pretty uncensored, and, to a community deluged with negative attacks and half-hearted ‘help’, it was renewing, invigorating, and redeeming. It was like a gift that he knew he could give to us, one that we very much needed. He did it again, later, on a conference call during some of the ugly negotiations over legislation, negotiations in which he central. He reminded us of the horrible stories he heard during hours talking with survivors of the New Bedford, MA ICE raids, and reminded us that that’s why we were in this fight, and he pitched himself as our ally in that struggle. When he left the call, there was an audible exhale and some nervous laughter, letting off steam. We were restored to fight on. That, to me, is about understanding your power and privilege and using it for good. Unpacking it, so you can exploit it. And it’s inspiring.

    My other memory of Senator Kennedy was in a town hall-type event on immigration. He made a point of shaking the hands of several of the immigrant kids who were there with us, including one that had come with me. She asked me about him later–who he was and why he cared. In talking to her, I was struck about how much his life was not about the American Dream of ‘anyone can be a leader’ but a lot more about the idea that some have special responsibility to lead, and what it means to live that weight. And we talked about the scandal that had touched his life and career, about how he had almost thrown away his place in politics. And she was quite comfortable with the idea that, as she put it, we’re all human, and it’s what we do to make up for our mistakes that distinguishes us much more than making them in the first place. And I thought about that this week, when he is remembered much more for the good that he has done with his legislative career than for the tragedy of Chappaquiddick, even though that tragedy echoes still. If we hold that only those public figures without flaw are worthy of revere, then we’re, by extension, excusing from courageous service all of us who are flawed. We can’t afford to bench that many of our allies. We need accountability, we need transparency, we need honesty, but we also need space for redemption. In my memory, the student’s brow furrowed for a minute upon hearing the story, and then she returned her gaze to watching Senator Kennedy embrace immigrant families, nodding as she watched good decisions atone for the past.

    We obviously can’t all be Kennedys, but we can all leave our mark–using the power that we accummulate as a force for good, refusing to be sidelined by the mistakes we’ve made, living up to our destiny to lead even as we’re still creating it.