A Nonprofit Game of Musical CEOs

Print Share on LinkedIn More


One of our newswire writers covered a story today that I thought was worth calling out.

The story is about an LGBT community center that had a recent history of success—so much so, in fact, that it apparently decided it needed more sophisticated, “businesslike” executive leadership to manage its now-expanded purview.

So it demoted the previous exec and brought on a former executive leader from AT&T, who did fine in the acquisition department but failed to grasp the basic difference between the for-profit and nonprofit sector that relates to whatmanagement guru Jim Collins calls the “legislative leadership” needs of nonprofits. He also refers to this as “Level 5 Leadership,” nonprofits where you must get things done within a diffuse power structure.

Collins suggests that this kind of leadership is unusual, as it requires that youinfluence people over whom you have no direct power in order to achieve results. In the nonprofit setting, making an executive decision of serious consequence without consultation may alienate boards of directors, staff, volunteers, and the community—all of whom, in the end, can scuttle or fuel an initiative, along with the organization itself. Therefore, Collins says, leaders in this sector need to be wise about when to use what is sometimes called “push,” or administrative, power as opposed to the more legislative type.

The apparent gaffes demonstrated by this new CEO with scads of experience—but in the business rather than the nonprofit sector—could not be more illustrative of the translation problem. Allegedly, he shot his mouth off about another partner/competitor organization without board approval.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I approve of shooting one’s mouth off and would like to see more of it in this sometimes excruciatingly self-censoring sector. But, when it can affect the image of the organization and its relationships and possibilities, it is always VERY wise to check in with the board first.

I expect that in response to this I will get comments bemoaning the perceived inability of nonprofit execs to be bold and decisive. Strong nonprofit leaders do not lack these qualities in the least; they just respect their stakeholders and understand that their own power—such as it is—flows from them and constitutes something of a social contract.

And talking about diffuse power and collaborative work—I want to point out that the newswire in question was written by Rob Meiksins, one of our dedicated volunteer newswire writers.

We are very grateful for the insightful writing of this hard-working group, and if you are too, please donate today!