Does Leadership Emerge? (Janet's blog)

(4-13-2010) Grantmakers in the Arts begins a new series of Web Conferences in May designed for emerging leaders and veteran grantmakers alike. You can see the six sessions we’ve put together on the GIA website. They are free to members and pretty inexpensive for nonmembers. This is an opportunity for colleagues from the same department, office and organization to share a learning experience on various topics offered up by some pretty smart people in the field of philanthropy and nonprofit arts. We hope to keep them to 50 minutes, make them interesting and educational.And they were organized by one of our very own GIA emerging leaders, Abigail Guay.

I’ve been reading the Emerging Leaders blogs on the Americans for the Arts site. They are pretty interesting and inspiring. If the entries of these young people (our own Tommer Peterson excluded, not that he’s not inspiring) are any indication of the future of the nonprofit arts sector, we are in good hands. As a student (both formally and informally) of leadership, there was one blog in particular that caught my attention.

I want to second Rosetta Thurman’s comments on leadership. I have always believed that leadership is not tied to titles or compensation or job responsibilities. Leadership is leadership. It happens every day. It’s the person who picks up the litter on the sidewalk so someone else doesn’t have to do it. It’s the person who says “so where are we going with this?” in meetings when everyone else is rolling their eyes but no one wants to speak up. It’s the person who sees a flaw in a program and figures out how to make it work. Leadership is about taking action when others think it should somehow be “someone else’s job.” In this context, you can be a leader no matter where you fall in the hierarchy of your organization.

I thank the stars daily for the young leaders in our offices who manage to understand the new database (thank you Kitsy) and who come up with ideas for programs and systems that improve our workplace and our service to members. Age and experience have little to do with leadership characteristics. Although, one can’t argue with the fact that really great leaders enhance skills over time through experiences that compliment innate leadership characteristics. There is some value in “we tried that yesterday and it didn’t work. There is little value in “we’ve never done it that way before.” Everything changes. I wrote my master’s paper on the characteristics of excellence in nonprofit leadership. They include management and technical skills, selflessness, role modeling, trust, integrity, honesty, the ability to empathize, inspire and to have a “sixth sense” about people. I called this “interpersonal strategic skills” which are particularly helpful with boards of directors. Nowhere in my research did it say to be a leader you must be “old” or have “thirty years of experience in the field.”

Leadership qualities are one thing. Working towards getting hired to lead an organization is another. That takes some experience and some strategic decisions. I was 37 before I became an executive director. It was an organization with a board of directors and one employee: me. Before that, I’d been a box office manager, summer theatre business manager, assistant membership director, fundraiser, grantwriter, high school teacher and the assistant to the general manager. But, I took a chance that leading a little organization might be more relevant to me than being the second assistant to the general manager of an internationally known theatre institution. It allowed me to create, take risks and succeed in a very different way than being anyone’s assistant could have done. It allowed me to develop my leadership skills. It was the right decision.