by Michael Webb

I recently helped a couple of nonprofits conduct a Board Skills Assessment (with the help of excellent resources from BoardSource and Funding for Good).

The results affirmed what I already suspected about their organizations.  It also opened my eyes to a kind of tunnel vision that no doubt is prevalent outside the boardroom and across sectors beyond the nonprofit world.

Almost consistently, people check the box that describes themselves as “Leaders.”
Maybe it’s because they are managers in their 8-to-5 job.  But if we stop to think, how many times have we known a manager who was not an effective Leader?

“Leader,” I believe, is a word that someone uses to describe someone else.  Like “modest” or “charming,” as soon as you use it to describe yourself, you’ve ruled yourself out. It only counts when it comes from someone else.

Sometimes ”leadership” just describes the first lemming to go over the cliff. On surveys like these, I never describe myself as a Leader.  I look for the box that says “Other” and write “worker bee.”

When the question “What makes an outstanding nonprofit leader?” came up in conversation recently with my colleagues Mandy Pearce and Marie Palacios, it gave me cause to pause and reflect.  While I’ve learned to recognize the quality of Leader innately in the people I’ve worked with, I’ve never taken on the challenge of defining it.  After 35 years in the nonprofit world, I’m overdue.

A Leader is the personification of the heart of a Venn diagram where Mentor, Manager, Motivator, Believer, and Visionary intersect.  From that perspective, it’s a wonder that such a person can exist at all.  But I’ve known enough Leaders to see that they do exist, and knowing that truth gives me hope.

From what I’ve learned so far in my career, a Leader is someone who:

  • Can move an idea forward and upward,
  • With infectious passion, confidence, and courage
  • Past obstacles and lethargy,
  • Knowing that change is inherent and essential when making something better,
  • To create a better, stronger place,
  • With a better, stronger team,
  • To achieve the mission of the organization.

As a result of this reflection, here is an open letter to Connie, Rick, Mary, Pat, Pete, David, Dave, Dick, Nancy, Barb, Bob, Miriam, Rachel, Heather, Fred, Kathleen, Vickie, and everyone else whose example has made me a better worker bee, and more appreciative of how blessed I am to have worked with inspiring people.

~ ~ ~

Dear friends, mentors, and colleagues.

I haven’t thanked you enough for the opportunity and the honor of working with you through the years.

Thank you for believing in me, and for not being embarrassed to say that in front of other people who didn’t believe it.

Thank you for being calm in the eye of the storm.  Your confidence inspired my confidence.

Thank you for letting me be heard in a room full of loud people.  And for knowing that being loud doesn’t make anyone right.

Thank you for never making it about you.  Our work in the nonprofit world is aboutmission.  Not politics.  Not popularity.   Mission (achieved with Integrity) comes first.  As soon as either of those is compromised, nothing that is truly valuable or worthwhile can happen next, except to take it all apart and start over.

Thank you for taking a bullet for me more than once.  I wish you hadn’t put yourself in that position. More truthfully, I wish I hadn’t put you in that position.  But while we’re on that subject …. Thank you for second chances.  And third chances.  And ….

In closing, thank you for convincing me repeatedly through our accomplishments that I’ve been right about at least one thing — Anything is possible if you have the right team, the right plan, and the right attitude.  Thank you for letting me part of your team.  It’s ok that I am not a Leader.  I am a worker bee who is a better at my work because you helped me along the way and believed in me. And if you believe nothing else, know that you have made me a better person and our world a better place.

Keep calm, and grant on!

* For another stellar article on leadership, check out 10 Ridiculously Important Tips to Be a Successful Leader by John Eades.

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