As someone stepping into the CEO role for a nonprofit organization for the first time, it has been quite the developmental journey to embrace a leadership style that works for the creative and collaborative culture of the Children’s Creativity Museum. My understandings of who I am and who I need to be as a leader for the organization have evolved over the fast-paced and packed year that I’ve officially held the role.
A recent realization that is providing me a lot of peace of mind is that I don’t actually have to choose one particular leadership style. Sure, my staff wants consistency, AND adaptive leadership requires that we have an array of leadership styles into which we can tap in order to respond to a changing world. I can be authoritative and make solid decisions, AND I can be collaborative in thinking through a project. I can feel like I’m alone at the top, AND I can consciously connect with my support network.
It’s like shifting gears. When I am going uphill, I can kick it up a notch. And when I’m on the highway, I can cruise.
The choice in leadership style, then, becomes not about who I need to be forever-and-ever-amen, but rather what is required of me in a given situation.
In my last post, I referred to the three fundamental needs all human beings have: security, connection, and meaning. Security feels like the most immediate one, since the need for survival has been hardwired into our bodies through millennia of evolution. That’s why Abraham Maslow put it at the base of his hierarchy of needs.
Leaders have a special responsibility because they have the power to provide a sense of safety for those they serve.
I’ve learned that, in communications, when any of the following show up, it means that safety is missing and might indicate the presence of the following emotions:
Flight: If you see someone trying to avoid a situation or duck a conversation, it might mean shame is at play. Perhaps, that person doesn’t want you to find out about a mistake they made or something they did.
Fight: If someone gets really defensive or combative, it may indicate guilt. That person might know that they are in the wrong and using the fight to direct our attention away from that wrong.
Freeze: When a person is frozen or unable to take any action, it might indicate that person is uncertain about the facts of the situation or about what to do.
When any of these behaviors shows up, it means that safety is missing, and that as leaders, we have an opportunity to contribute to meeting someone’s needs by trying to create a safe space for them.
John Kotter’s classic, Leading Change, makes a powerful distinction between management and leadership. Kotter says that management is focused on the effective maintenance of the status quo, i.e. they keep things going. In contrast, leadership is about a vision for the future; it is about moving things in a new direction.
Every organization needs both types: competent managers and effective leaders. Most human resource programs focus on management programs. Many confuse leadership development with management programs.
How are we building leader-ful organizations?
How are we ensuring that we can sustain organizations and keep them adaptive enough to a rapidly changing world?
Lately, much of my reading has focused on that rare breed of business leader known as “entrepreneurs.” As I’ve studied the maverick product designer and the venture capitalist, I’ve come to appreciate the parallels they have to the nonprofit sector. In particular, I’ve been taken aback by how start-ups have to deal with an environment of limited resources.
The difference is that, in the nonprofit sector, we tend to relate to the context of “not enough” from the place of deficiency: There’s a finite amount of charitable dollars for which we must compete, and that’s what we get to work with. Resource constraints become our ceilings and walls.
In contrast, entrepreneurs tend to relate to “not enough” as a constraint to be transcended: It is not something that one should allow to stop them, but rather a bar over which we must leap. Resource constraints become our floor.
When you butt up against “not enough,” are you choosing to be stopped by it? Or are you choosing to reach beyond it?
How we think about leadership shapes how we approach its presence and development in our lives. Behind our predominant economic model and our political structure is the very tricky idea that for there to be leaders, there have to be followers. A divide is created between those who are so-called “followers” and those who lead. An assumption is made about the capacity of others to make a difference.
How would we approach our leadership development differently if we came from the place that every single person has a contribution to make to the improvement of this world?
Rather than people being the cogs in the business machine, what if instead they each play a critical part in finding the best possible solution given the resource constraints?
In many ways, being an effective leader involves being able to dance with change. This is difficult when the predominant stereotype of the strong leader is one who is a bulwark against change: A strong and effective leader is one who controls such that changes are minimized, if not eliminated.
The problem is that that is not reality. Change is reality. Change is what happens, regardless of what a leader chooses to do. The best that s/he can do it to adapt to change in every moment, to roll with the proverbial punches.
Thus, a crucial and necessary stepping stone in the leadership development journey is to transform our relationship to change. We must embrace that change cannot be managed out but rather can be the access to transformation.
A mantra, or set of aspirational statements, which I’ve been practicing the past few weeks is below: