Today it is clear that organizational success hinges in large measure on leadership quality. For instance, we know from our friends in the for-profit sector that employee morale, successful work teams, and peak workplace performance are all connected to effective leadership. And, of course the overarching theme of Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” work was that leaders were the difference in taking a company from “good to great.”
In the non-profit arena, there is less research from which to draw, but the findings are similar. As an example, in the world of higher education, Neumann and Neumann (1999) found that leadership style impacts enrollment growth and even endowment yield!
But when we think about effective leadership, especially in the non-profit world, what images do we conjure up? A take-no-prisoners, “I have all the answers” approach? Or a rabbit-eared, consensus-chaser devoid of personal vision and focused aspirations? Probably neither of these extreme images fits the bill. Most people view effective leaders as what I call “ambitious embracers with vision.” To understand better what I mean, let’s unpack the phrase.
First, effective non-profit leaders are those who do, indeed, have vision. They have focused aspirations. They have a vision for what they want the organization, division, or department to be capable of accomplishing in 5, even 10 years. Second, they are viewed as involving others meaningfully in the creation and implementation of that vision. They are embracers. Effective leaders are other-centered and ask questions which attract and embrace others – and not just any questions. But consequential questions like, “tell me who taught you how to be philanthropic?” Or, “what would you like us to accomplish over the next five years?”
So, on one hand effective leaders have a vision or aspirations for their organizations. But on the other hand, they embrace others in the creation of that vision. Effective leaders allow others to inform their vision and are masters at massaging and integrating the great ideas and passions of others into an organizational vision or set of aspirations which can, simultaneously, propel the organization toward greatness and bring many others along for the ride.
Finally, effective non-profit leaders are ambitious. But not in the way people may think. Yes, they have ego. But effective leaders who sustain excellence over time have even more ego devoted to their organizations. They are ambitious, but they are more ambitious for their organization than they are for self. They worry less about “being,” and far more about “doing.”
As I have worked with a variety of leaders, I have become convinced that leadership is an art form which can be practiced regardless of title or position. I have also become convinced that the best development staff members are “ambitious embracers with vision.” They have an ambitious vision for the organization’s future, and they embrace donors inviting them to help create and implement that very organizational vision. So, as you go about the business of quality development work, be also mindful of being an “ambitious embracer with vision.” After all, we are responsible for “developing and advancing” our organizations.