Nurturing Leaders On a National Scale

This week my colleague and friend John McCann reminded me that leadership is a critical element to successful sustainability for organizations. I couldn’t agree with him more. I’ve always been fascinated by the study of leadership. I even wrote an “almost” dissertation on the subject. I say “almost” because it was a master’s program that required a final paper and not an official dissertation. It was still really long with lots of footnotes. The title was “Characteristics of Excellence in Nonprofit Leadership.”

John is the director of the Institute for Cultural Policy and Practice at Virgina Tech and president of Partners in Performance. Here's what he wrote to me: “There may not be one answer to what makes a successful organization sustainable over years, yet an essential element is effective leadership. Without it, all the infrastructure building and technical assistance in the world will contribute only marginally. Our field has been blessed with some fine leaders, yet we do little to foster their improvement, and nothing field wide to develop the upcoming generation of executive and artistic leaders. Bridgespan cites that the nonprofit (sector) will need 80,000 new senior executives each year for the next decade. Our field is not immune---and the trend is exacerbated by the rapid retirement of our founding generation of leaders. In the nonprofit health field, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has responded by developing its 16-month Ladder to Leadership program in nine communities across the country--each with a cohort of 30 up and coming executives. That's 270 participants each year during the four-year phase-in period. It's time for us to take a similar sustained approach to supporting our best and brightest--maybe they'll reward us by helping build more sustainable organizations.”

Leadership is more than management, understanding structures, budgets, marketing, boards and artistic product. It is that mysterious ingredient sometimes connected with charisma. It is what makes an army follow Henry V into battle against all odds. It's the "band of brothers" speech personified. I've thought about this often over the years. Can you teach leadership? Can you mentor leadership? Or, are individuals just born leaders? Nurture or nature? Good leaders don't necessarily need to be good managers, they need to be smart enough to hire and work with good managers. This becomes pretty mind-boggling sometimes but I believe there is more to it than semantics. Leadership is transformational and management is transitional.

In the future, I’m hoping that the nonprofit arts sector will spend more time and dollars in nurturing leaders. The idea of a national leadership program is fascinating to me. Not management, leadership. Until then, you can all read my “Characteristics of Excellence in Nonprofit Leadership." OK, maybe not.