Ten Tried and True Tips to Becoming a Leader: Uplifting Advice for the Young People of America

Print Share on LinkedIn More

Fifteen years ago I was asked by a young staffer at a human services agency how he should plan his career, since it seemed to him that “the only people getting hired to run organizations are already executive directors.”

Hundreds of telephone and coffee-shop informational interviews later, I have now decided to share what I have learned with the Young People of America.

A couple of caveats are in order. First, generalizing on so broad a subject is risky, and it is quite possible that in some way your experience will vary from the timeworn paths of your elders (though I doubt it). Nevertheless, to allow for some variation, included (as a bonus feature) are one or two alternative methods for each of The 10 Primary Paths to Leadership.

Second, keep your own counsel. Your Personal Plan to Achieve Nonprofit Excellence (yes, you should absolutely Dare To Be Great!) is your own business. If you fail, it’s not the fault of your graduate program, your personal coach, your funders, or this article. It’s your fate, as near as I can tell.

So, culled from seven years’ experience working in this field (and 13 years in meetings), here is what I’ve discovered to be The 10 Primary Paths to Becoming a Great Nonprofit Leader:

1. “Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned.”
—Mark Twain, 1898

If you want to lead, get a master’s degree or a certificate in nonprofit management. There are now 93 higher education programs delivering rehashed business school content that are counting on your student loans to pay for their marketing costs, and a fascinating group of fellow students who will be applying for the same jobs as you, and they will have a degree or a certificate. So why not you?

Alternative 1a. Apply yourself in a work situation, and gain skills and experience useful to the community and the organization in which you work.

Alternative 1b. Undertake your own education, be an independent thinker, have thoughtful conversations with others, and read and hang on to your copies of Nonprofit Quarterly.

2. “You will always find a few Eskimos ready to tell the Congolese how to cope with the heat.”
—Stanislaw Lec, Unkempt Thoughts, 1962

Serious leaders today hire Certified Executive Coaches™. (How does that make you feel?) These are professionals (often accredited by the National Sycophantic Executive Coaches Network, Inc.) trained in active listening and support, who are results-oriented, outcome focused, and paid to listen to you whine and blame your workload and the people with whom you are forced to work. (What do you think you could do about that?) Occupying the space previously filled by actual long-term trusting friendships (an artifact of the pre-Internet era), Certified Executive Coaches™ provide confidential, one-on-one strategies to “get you back in the game” and “execute change leadership.”

Alternative 2a. Quit your sniveling, suck it up, create a to-do list, and get back to work.

Alternative 2b. Make a career change to be a Certified Executive Coach™.

3. “The man who acts humble in order to win praise is guilty of the lowest form of pride.”
—Nachman of Bratslav, 1803

Notwithstanding the above, today’s enterprising leaders in nonprofits and philanthropy have learned that a publicist gets you noticed far more effectively than having a Certified Executive Coach™. If you aren’t noticed, no amount of actual work or accomplishment will advance your career. A publicist can help you get in various media, letters to the editor, or in articles like “30 Achievers Under 30” or “40 Under 40.” Register or RSVP for events but don’t show up—it helps to get your name out there. Get invited to present at obscure meetings far away, in Asia or Europe if possible, and get it in some publication. Plaster your photo all over your organization’s newsletter. If you are an executive director, get your title changed to President and CEO—it sounds more important, and lots of the big corporate jobs use that.

Alternative 3a. Achieve something noteworthy—someone is bound to notice.

4. “He who can do this has the whole world with him. He who cannot walks a lonely way.”
—Dale Carnegie, 1936

Ever since Dale Carnegie learned persuasion by winning college debates arguing “the necessity of halting Japanese immigration,”1 clever Americans have had a knack for winning friends and influencing people. But only if they put their minds to it—which is what you must do. Find out what other people want, use their name a lot, and praise their efforts. Your funders are great, your local elected officials are terrific, and your board is wonderful. I know you can do this because you are fabulous. You are one of the most talented people I know. You are smart, intelligent, and beautiful, which is why lots of people love you and enjoy working with you.2

Alternative 4a. Be forthright.

Alternative 4b. Be a contrarian. In an industry of dysfunctional rescuers (providing support for the well-meaning regardless of performance), candor and truth-telling will set you apart.

5. “If you want to get along, go along.”
—Sam Rayburn, Speaker,
U.S. House of Representatives, 1940–61

Discretion is the better part of valor. In all your battles, be brave but not foolish. Someone, somewhere, at some point, could take offense if you speak up on a matter in public dispute. Wait to see which way the wind is blowing and don’t make a mountain out of a molehill. He who fights and runs away may live to fight another day, etc.

Alternative 5a. Breathe the spirit of the age and have the courage of your convictions.

6. “Whoever has the gold makes the rules.”
—Folk Saying

By their finances you shall know the best leaders, who have a spreadsheet permanently playing on a video screen in their brains. They spend the majority of their staff and board meetings on finance and fundraising, and control people by restricting their budget items. Money people respect finance people, and you will want to be respected by the money people.

Alternative 6a. It’s not just about the money. Pay attention and stay involved in the actual work of the organization.

7. “I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”
—Ralph Nader

Go to lots of meetings, conferences, and events—and get into any program that has the word “leadership” in the title. The value of leadership programs is not that you actually learn anything—they are mostly a potpourri of presentation and posturing—but because they actually have the effect of designating you as a leader, whether you have any leadership qualities or not!

Caveat: Avoid being designated as a young leader. Like musical prodigies, it doesn’t wear well with age, and can have the weird effect

of making you appear developmentally delayed.

Alternative 7a. Be supportive of your peers. One day you’ll see why.

8. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
—Margaret Mead (1959)

Or at least they can change your net worth, if you get on the right board. Surround yourself with important people. Maneuver into an opening by being chummy with the board members doing an executive search, or better yet, get on the board itself. A small but growing cadre of privileged foundation and nonprofit CEOs have effectively used the role of board member to have themselves eased into the corner office. (Successful conniving isn’t really conniving, but leadership.)

Alternative 8a. Volunteer for a board of an organization whose work you admire and support, and help them succeed.

Alternative 8b. Grossly overcommit. Get on five or more boards, attend about a quarter of the meetings, and be gracious but constantly exasperated, blaming your horrible schedule conflicts.

9. “A prince, so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal, ought not to mind the reproach of cruelty; because with a few examples he will be more merciful than those who, through too much mercy, allow disorders to arise.”
—Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (1505)

Leaders make the tough decisions, and being decisive is the mark of a true leader. You will want to be seen as a woman or a man of action. Periodic reorganization gives the leader an opportunity to be decisive—changing program names, shuffling staff around, and remodeling offices (and putting everyone else into cubicles) indicates direction, change management, and decisiveness. Periodic unexplained absences, tense expressions, and obtuse memos can add to the sense of inscrutability and high-level strategy.

Alternative 9a. Consult with the people affected by decisions in advance.

Alternative 9b. Unpredictably fire people and complain about “bad luck in hiring.”

10. “A revolution is not a dinner party.”
—Mao Zedong (1949)

Make no small plans. (If any of my staff are reading this, please stop here.) You look around at the people with the big jobs and you realize, “I could do that!” And there they sit, so comfortable—merely coasting, occupying space, or just plain squatting. So how long do entrenched placeholders plan to stay? As long as they want. And why exactly is the date of their departure left up to them? This last path is not for everyone, or for every situation. However, your willingness to dislodge the people above you is the truest test of your capacity for potent leadership. By whatever means necessary, speed the succession process.

Alternative 10a. Limit yourself to working for people you respect (then you won’t stew in long meetings wishing someone would poison their Diet Coke).

Alternative 10b. Be entrepreneurial: start a new nonprofit, and stay at the top as long as you want (naturally, keeping strict command over any bright, talented people you hire).

Given the increasing regulatory and financial constraints on nonprofits, courageous and principled leadership is needed now more than is usually the case. With your help we can address that situation with you, because you are just the sort of bold, highly motivated, insightful person this sector needs.

Just don’t screw it up.


1#. Carnegie, Dale. 1937. How to Win Friends and Influence People. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. p. 10.

2. The Automatic Flatterer Web site;  (October 10, 2004).


Phil Anthrop is a consultant to foundations in G-8 countries.