Building Leadership or a Self-Reinforcing Bureaucracy

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The year 2004 ended with one of recorded history’s most devastating natural disasters. Within this context we immediately saw individual hearts demonstrate their compassion through giving and volunteering—this is the life source of our sector. They also demanded that their governments do more; this is also who and what we are—the prod to the status quo that protects the things we care about and creates vision and movement and change. This was one of those moments that Margaret Wheatley refers to when people organize themselves spontaneously to respond to the unexpected, the moment before political positioning inserts itself and makes its claims for turf and fame. (See Leadership and the New Science, 1999).

Our world is a turbulent place—seismic shifts have occurred not only under the Indian Ocean, but also nationally in assaults on our social contract, in technological advances that sometimes outstrip our ability to foresee their positive and negative potential, and in our nation’s relationship with the world. Meanwhile, nonprofit leadership in this country is still encouraged to look at itself through an individual psychological lens on the one hand and, on the other, to judge ourselves and each other by the size and stability of the institutions that we run and the degree to which we are allowed at the tables of the powerful and connected. This is insufficient.

But connectedness is an important thing to think about in relationship to what good leadership in this sector really requires. There are a lot of voices included in this issue: young and old, Black—both native-born and foreign-born—Native American, Hispanic, Asian. They come from all across this continent and are involved in many different types of endeavors. They work locally, nationally, internationally—sometimes all at once. Most of them have taken significant personal risks for things that they believe in. These people all helped us to define the leadership issues of the sector in view of our current social and political context.

In a spirit of humility, we put the following collectively developed ideas forward not as a self righteous rant, but as a call for a reconsideration of leadership’s purpose and function within the “social” sector. If these ideas are headed in the right direction, we all have a lot of changing to do.

So Will the Real Leadership Issues Please Stand Up?

Institutional and Personal Interests: NPQ’s observation is that one of the most serious leadership issues in this sector has to do with entrenched leaders and their organizations and supporters resisting people and ideas different from themselves. This happens through neglect of the disciplines of organizing, combining constituent development and their involvement in strategy development for desired change, and through inadequate funding of that grassroots work. It happens through the drive to see institutions succeed above efforts and above communities. The differences that we refer to might include class, education, race, and generation. But they also include iconoclastic people with ideas that deconstruct accepted ways of doing things.

There is little that is surprising in this. People in this sector spend years cultivating relationships and building institutions. They get used to handling themselves well within a limited circle, sometimes referred to as a self-reinforcing loop (“If we all agree, then we must be right!”). While there are progressively more ways to improve “management” skills, many nonprofit organizations are still structured fairly hierarchically and few nonprofits have governance systems that hold them directly accountable to those whom they are supposed to benefit. This whole scene can get a little precious and exclusive, and obscures our real management challenge in this sector.

The degree to which a repetitive reciprocal congratulation of executive leaders trumps critical thinking in some segments of this sector is scary. At conferences we all have to sit through hours of such stuff—and grin and bear it. Engaging in all of that is a terrible standard to set, but many of our “leaders” do so engage. As a result, we are forced to live in an environment of half-truths and to pay homage to silly, unfinished ideas that block real rigor.

NPQ would like to propose that genuine leadership in the nonprofit sector should be nothing less than a stand for transformation—at the individual, organizational, sector, and movement levels. In short, we need to reclaim our collective identity and power for creating the world in which we want to live. This means we need to help develop voices everywhere, understand thoroughly what blocks their full development, and encourage broadly the courage and energy to act, and the confidence to envision and, when appropriate, insist upon change.

Boundary Crossing: Rick Cohen of the Committee for Responsive Philanthropy writes to us that getting to this pinnacle means that our “leaders” have to extend their efforts well beyond organizational boundaries and beyond building their own institutions to the building of powerful networks. A friend of mine who is part of an international network recently said to me that their individual groupings were failing to achieve their goals, which have to do with reducing poverty. “If you look at any of our organizational missions, they cannot be realized within our institutional boundaries. We have to work backwards from the goal and then be willing to do things differently.” Another friend told me the other day that his intention was to take apart the organization that he directs if a more loosely managed effort would work better on the massive social issue it addresses. But this kind of thinking is anathema to a lot of what we hear is good practice.

Organizing Is Basic: Ron Walters of the University of Maryland Political Science Department helped us to crystallize the problem with the common framing of leadership when he told NPQ that he finds himself “at odds with much of the emphasis of the leadership research and practice in this country in that it tends toward a highly developed individualistic model. The focus of this model is on individual psychological factors and the promotion of individual leadership by identifying predisposition and supporting a set of individual characteristics.” So how much do current emphases in leadership research and practice contribute to the preparation of people to move communities to satisfy social needs? “I’m afraid the answer is ‘not much,’” replied Walters, “I think the job of the social sector is to focus our attention on communities and what we need to do to encourage individuals to arise, collectively and spontaneously, in unexpected ways because they are responding to an emotional, heartfelt concern.”

In his thinking, this sector needs to emphasize and devote resources to organizers who see their job as supporting the involvement of people in their own communities and the shaping of our collective national and global politic. Everyone who sees him or herself as a leader in this sector should, he believes, know the basic discipline of engaging people. They should see their job as servicing that. And foundations should support this work even and especially when it is contentious and when it increases public debate.

Ann Philbin of the Center to Support Immigrant Organizing writes to NPQ: “The philosophy and practice of an individualistic model of leadership is reinforced in our society, in our organizations and often within our own psyches. This model is a barrier to the kind of collective and collaborative leadership we know to be necessary in these times. Although we all suffer from the effects of this individualistic model, we aren’t always conscious of the benefits we get from it as well. It is gratifying to our egos (and our pocketbooks!) to be counted in the circles of power, to be viewed as one of the experts, to be seen as the leader, especially if the road to getting there has been tough.

But, it is not always easy to recognize the exclusive and limited nature of this form of leadership and it has worked to maintain the privilege of the few and to stifle collective action. We know that true leaders work to unlock the potential that exists in others and to facilitate the exercise of that potential in others as well as within themselves. It is collective action that must be the foundation for broad and deep social and economic change.”

In short, we need to be connected—to our constituencies as generative partners, and between organizations, many of which have been built on a competitive industrial model ill suited to our market and our work and that have been disconnected by categorical funding models, and to knowledge and curiosity and new ideas.

No Time to Lose

This is not a call without urgency. In the fall issue of NPQ we published a number of articles about punitive actions including repetitive IRS audits and defunding used against organizations that dissented from policies of the current administration. These situations call us to questions of institutional and personal risk against institutional and personal acquiescence or, if you will, adaptability. But, as Gus Newport of the Institute for Community Economics has written to us, “Much in how movement progresses is native to the conditions of the time. Leadership development is like tempering steel, it must be done at a certain temperature, and if you don’t make the situation hot and dangerous the product is faulty and must be scrapped.”

Leadership in Context

We need to study our surroundings carefully to look for ways of grounding ourselves with constituencies and finding the uncomfortable areas of institutional and personal risk that distinguish dynamic nonprofit leadership from the humdrum institutional and individual models promoted by what typically passes as leadership definition and development in the sector. We have to see our future in the future of every young person around us and facilitate meaningful connections across generations, as Robby Rodriguez and Frances Kunreuther have referenced in their articles in this issue. We have to take our own blind spots seriously and make sure that we understand their power, as Nesly Metayer’s article in this issue helps us realize more fully.

We are in a time of disequilibrium. If we simply attempt to return all things to their previous balance, we will lose our ability to have any serious effect on the future of this country and the globe. Disequilibrium, as Margaret Wheatley noted in her book, Leadership and the New Science, is a preliminary to a reordering. We can either participate in determining what set of values is used or not. Those of us who are willing to study carefully what political forces and vested interests are at war with one another and are willing to agree upon a set of values and pursue them in concert with one another—humbling ourselves in those efforts, but never extinguishing our own lights in the process—are the leaders this sector needs for the future.

We leave you with a final rumination by D.H. Lawrence:


When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,
and when we escape like squirrels turning in the cages of our personality
and get into the forests again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.

Cool, unlying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like
burnt paper.