When survival is at stake, we need grounded leaders

I recently completed a term as board chair of a non-profit organization, a volunteer position. The two-year term was not what I hoped it would be. Instead of concentrating on important public policy issues of the day, my work centered mainly on difficult financial and personnel matters facing the organization itself.

Some nine months ago, I wrote a blog post about the challenges of leadership in hard times:

When we hire, appoint, or elect new leaders for our businesses, organizations and our government, we naturally are drawn to those who present an uplifting, optimistic vision for the future.

. . . But reality can be hard on those expectations. When we face difficult times, as we do now, the leaders we need today may be less about lofty hopes and upward movement, and more about survival, sustainability, and keeping a steady hand at the helm in rough seas.

My experience was hardly unique. But it did give me a new appreciation for my own words! The economic meltdown has hit the non-profit sector with a vengeance. Within many of these organizations, much attention and energy are devoted simply to ensuring that the entity survives.

We tend to valorize leaders who were able to advance great visions and move their organizations, companies, and governmental bodies forward in dramatic, memorable ways. That’s all well and good.

But I confess that my own experience has taught me also to look closely at leaders who guide their organizations through difficult times with integrity and wisdom.

The best of these leaders arrive at tough decisions fairly and then stand behind them. They take responsibility for measures that may be painful. They don’t seek glory, but rather carry a sense of duty. And their actions are guided by qualities of vision that may have to be temporarily sacrificed during their tenure.

These qualities are rare. (I certainly don’t claim that I displayed all of them during my term as a board chair.) But I submit we are going to need a lot more of these leaders in the years to come. More than ever, we should avoid selecting the preening peacocks, flaming narcissists, and pageant contestants in favor of grounded, mature leaders with the right commitment.

4 responses

  1. Here here! But good luck getting boards of non profits to actually pay attention to what’s happening in there organizations. The whole thing is built on the boards not being involved in day to day …. Perfect hunting grounds for the flaming narrcisists and bullies!

  2. 🙂 Sometimes the biggest heroes are the ones who don’t get all the huzzahs, but get an organization through the rough period intact and with integrity. It’s like the old story about using most of the rocket’s fuel to get it the first foot off the launch pad; it might not look like it gained much ground, but that foot off the pad was key to everything.

  3. David
    While i am certainly not referring to the agency you volunteered for, unfortunately my experience with working for a non for profit for 16 years was horrid and the so called leaders that ran the board were just there to make it look good, did nothing and just filled a spot in this large upstate ny organization. I know that you stand behind the healthy workplace bill. This agency i worked for allowed bullying and refused to help when called upon, even admitted it was true but turned a blind eye.These are not leaders but cowards. I agree with you though the kind of people you speak of are the type of leaders we need, people with a vison and ones that will stand behind policies and procedures and look at all areas of a workplace and organization, not just the money that keeps the doors open. In 16 years i did not see this organization do one thing for its some 100 employees other than make sure payroll was met. It would not surprise me if many non for profits operate this way. The experience that i had and the injuries i sustained while at this large community center near Syracuse ny has sickened me from ever feeling like i could work for anyform of organized labor again. when you use and abuse someone and work them into the ground until they become sick it is pathetic. We need laws Dave!!!!!!!!!

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