Two Years Later, Part Three: Observing Eight Traits of Effective Leaders

Phil Buchanan

I’ve been thinking recently about what’s changed since March 2020 when it comes to the nonprofit sector; foundation and individual giving; and my take on leadership. In this final post of a three-part series, I reflect on what I have learned — or re-learned — about leadership.

So many nonprofits and foundations stepped up during the last two years, as I discussed in my previous posts in this series. Their work helped, in all kinds of ways, to make a very bad two years somewhat less bad than they would have otherwise been for many communities and people.

Such is “success,” sometimes, in the philanthropic and nonprofit context.

Here are a few things I noticed about the leaders who really made a difference these past two years. This isn’t a research-based list, just some thoughts from one observer. These aren’t all particularly original insights, either, or specific to this time period. But as I watched both nonprofit and foundation leaders grapple with the challenges posed by the last two years, this is what stood out.

  1. They know when urgent action is needed. Many nonprofits (and some foundations) moved with incredible speed to serve clients in need, re-imagining in-person programming and even in some cases re-inventing their entire purpose, as I discussed in my last post. The best leaders were as consultative as they could be in the context, but they also understood decisions were needed and the consequences of inaction, in some cases, are too great to allow for much deliberation. When clients show up at your organization’s doors because they got furloughed or laid off and they can’t put food on the table — and they don’t feel safe or comfortable showing up somewhere else — you pick up the phone and forge a partnership with the food pantry. You don’t delay.
  2. At the same time, the most effective leaders I have seen during this period know it can be problematic to decide something too quickly or definitively. In a moment of crisis like 2020, the temptation, sometimes, is to act decisively and, indeed, sometimes quick action is required (see first point above). But often a little patience allows for more and better information and more time to hear from those potentially affected. Take the debate on foundation spending levels in the early days of the pandemic: some foundations said definitively they wouldn’t increase payout, or even announced they would cut payout levels in spring 2020. They feared hits to their endowments that ultimately were very temporary, as markets ended up roaring back. The same goes with return to office plans that had to be shifted two, three, or four times. Waiting sometimes has more benefits than costs. This may seem like a contradiction with my first point, but effective leaders can discern when urgent action is required and when taking more time — and thought and reflection — is best.
  3. The best leaders don’t neglect the internal aspect of their jobs. I have seen more than a few foundation leaders become so pulled into the public-facing dimensions of their roles that they wouldn’t even be able to describe their own institution’s grant proposal or reporting requirements. But effectiveness for foundations during the last two years, especially, has required CEOs to be in the operational details: to make overhauling grantmaking processes a priority, for example, to free up nonprofits to work most effectively toward shared goals, as I described in my post last week. It has required CEOs, also, to dive into the details of what a hybrid approach to work might look like and to become more involved in what in past times might have been left to “human resources” — such as understanding, for example, the mental health challenges facing staff and discussing how to support them. Leaders need to be able to move between the external and the internal seamlessly.
  4. Effective leaders build relationships and avoid becoming isolated in a bubble of their own making — this is especially crucial in a time of crisis. How many times do we have to watch political leaders — from Donald Trump to Andrew Cuomo — surround themselves with sycophants, casting out all who challenge them? Yet I see leaders and people I actually respect do this in small ways all the time, avoiding those who disagree with them or failing to recognize the homogeneity of perspectives within the circle of people they consult. How many stories do we all know of foundations that launched major strategic initiatives thinking they were widely supported by the communities or people they sought to help only to realize, too late, that they were not? The best leaders I have seen seek out diverse and differing views and make sure to cultivate relationships with those they know will challenge them directly. They recognize that progress requires expanding coalitions, and sometimes compromising — not just working with those who already agree with them. And they know that it takes thoughtful, deliberate effort to create spaces in which people feel comfortable speaking up.
  5. Especially difficult since the onset of the pandemic, effective leaders balance the urgency of the work (which is often about life and death) with compassion and understanding for the human challenges, including mental health challenges, facing their teams. It has been incredibly difficult for many leaders of front-line nonprofits, especially, to balance the dire nature of challenges faced by clients and communities — and the urgency of action — with the realities of their staff members’ lives, which are also, of course, affected by the pandemic. The best leaders understand that the tension is real and requires constant attention and focus as well as continuous open acknowledgment and discussion.
  6. The most effective leaders see racial equity as the central and cross-cutting imperative that it is. They act as their organization’s chief equity officer. Every aspect of a nonprofit and foundation’s work, both external-facing and internal-facing, needs to engage questions of equity — and whether inequities are being perpetuated or dismantled. While there is also an important role, organizationally, for someone focused on these questions, it’s ultimately everyone’s job, which means it is the CEO’s job most of all. The CEO must interrogate everything from internal pay practices to external-facing programmatic strategies with a focus on equity.
  7. To bring up a theme in my previous two posts, trust is everything. Building trust with staff and boards and with external constituencies isn’t about everyone agreeing with the CEO. It’s about them understanding why decisions were made and what the process was; its about admitting to mistakes and taking responsibility; it’s about creating the right opportunities for input; and it’s about, perhaps more than anything, openness and transparency. Secrets and misunderstandings are the downfalls of so many organizational cultures and, ultimately, it is the leader who sets the tone of openness that builds trust. As I have said many times, transparency needs to start at home.
  8. Finally, the most effective leaders recognize this paradox: their leadership is key but, ultimately, it’s not remotely about them. The leader’s role is in service to others. That means empowering others to feel a sense of ownership and belonging. When that happens, effective leaders aren’t missed if they have to step away — for a family emergency, say. Moreover, the best leaders recognize that they are not the smartest in the room nor, typically, the experts in whatever is being discussed. What they’re good at is creating the conditions in which people do their best work.

To that point, I will conclude by noting that I am not a leadership expert; that these ideas aren’t all particularly original; that I, myself, am a work in progress as a leader trying to live up to the observations I just offered up here (and definitely not always succeeding); and that, finally, these are just some observations from one person who has had the opportunity to see a lot of leaders in action. I hope it’s helpful or, at the very least, thought-provoking. Please let me know what you think I missed or got wrong.

Acknowledgments: Many people have shaped my views on leadership, perhaps none more than my friend, mentor, and Harvard historian Nancy Koehn. I interviewed her about leadership in crisis for this Chronicle of Philanthropy webinar in December. Alyse d’Amico, CEP’s vice president, People & Culture, has also helped me clarify my thinking on the topics discussed here. Finally, thanks to my colleague Kevin Bolduc, CEP’s vice president, Assessment & Advisory Services, who has given me valuable feedback on this post as well as the previous two in this little series. All that said, the views here are mine and the folks I mentioned may or may not agree with them all.

Phil Buchanan is president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, author of Giving Done Right, and co-host of the podcast by the same name. Follow him on Twitter at @philxbuchanan.

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