Walking The Tightrope of Leadership

The role of a chief executive officer (CEO) of a nonprofit organization is challenging in very interesting ways.  We are asked to lead an organization without actually being the leadership or governing entity of the organization. We are asked to be visionaries and managers, transformational and transactional leaders at the same time. I’ve often visualized this as balancing on a tight rope while keeping plates spinning.  On one side, the board of directors, on the other side, the staff; one side: artists and the other side: community; one side: funders, and the other side: programs serving constituents and so on and so forth. (I don’t’ mean this as “taking sides” because we are on all sides.)

I’ve spent much of my career thinking, teaching and writing about organizational management and leadership.   I wrote my final paper for my master’s degree eight years ago, on “The Characteristics of Excellence in Nonprofit Leadership.”  I don’t claim to have the answers but I do know it takes a lot of plate spinning to be good at this job.

My original research and literature review identified the following as characteristics of excellent nonprofit leadership:

  • Passion for the mission
  • Honesty, integrity and trust
  • Participatory management skills
  • Selflessness and role modeling
  • Interpersonal political skills

These are all pretty self-explanatory except maybe “interpersonal political skills.”  This is a phrase that attempts to explain the unexplainable.  This is an attribute that manifests itself in servant-leader qualities.  The ability to share credit, build a team, instill trust and assure followers.  This is a trait that is hard to explain and even harder to teach. It is the ability to use “soft power” to garner support, diffuse conflict and inspire change. “Soft power” is a term used in world politics and describes diplomacy. Having no real authority and yet, having influence.  “Hard power” usually refers to military capabilities or, in our world, the power one position holds over another. Soft power, in the long run, is always easier, more productive and less complicated in getting positive results.  To some people, these diplomatic skills come naturally.  To others, it becomes the struggle of their job and sometimes their career.  To most of us, it is an aspiration.

As part of my master’s paper, I interviewed successful nonprofit CEOs, their board chairs and their funders who confirmed that CEOs are expected to provide leadership for their boards of directors. The boards of directors are open to this leadership when there is a high level of confidence and trust in the CEO’s abilities to manage and lead. Successfully leading the board requires an understanding of human behavior and interpersonal political skills on the part of the CEO. Passion in the mission, honesty, integrity, trust, participatory management skills, selflessness and role modeling are all characteristics that endure the CEO to the board of directors. Engaging the board in the organization’s mission is the CEO’s responsibility.

With all the plates that a nonprofit executive needs to spin, why would anyone want these jobs?  Well, when it works…when it provides the services and artistic products that inspire us all, it becomes obvious. It is fulfilling and rewarding to realize that you are a conduit for the passion and resolve of artists, staff and board members to make change and, in some way, make our world a better place.  We are reminded why we were attracted to the nonprofit world to begin with.

“For the cause that lacks assistance
For the wrong that needs resistance,
For the future in the distance,
And the good that I can do.”

“What I Live For” by George Linnaeus Banks