Strong nonprofit leaders are critical for success.

As someone who has made my fair share of mistakes (and done a whole lot of learning and growing!) over these many years since I achieved adulthood, as well as someone who has made her living as a trainer and workshop facilitator, I have come to fervently believe that leaders are not necessarily “born”.  Rather, they are made – honed by experience and practice.

“Transformational” leadership is the concept that if you have the desire and willpower to lead…you can learn to do so, and do so effectively.

It doesn’t mean, however, that leadership skills come naturally to many of us, or that any one leader masters all of the elements of effective leadership:  it takes real work, a little humility, a willingness to grow and learn, and a lot of soul searching.  It is a never ending process of self-examination, education, training, and experience that develops leaders.

Managers vs Leaders

Managers are usually put in charge by virtue of their job description or position.  Leaders, on the other hand, can come from anywhere within the organization; power and position do not necessarily make one a leader, they simply make one the boss.

Warren Bennis, in his book “On Becoming a Leader”, writes “There is a profound difference between management and leadership, and both are important.  To manage means to bring about, to accomplish, to have charge or responsibility for, to conduct.  Leading is influencing, guiding in a direction, course or action.  The distinction is crucial.”

In one of my very first jobs, I witnessed firsthand the difference between leadership and management.  I worked for a man, who by virtue of his position was our “boss”.  In truth, he had no real desire to lead, only to manage and control – and he didn’t do either of those very well.  The organization was floundering, and as money grew scarcer, he grew more erratic.  There came a time, in one memorable staff meeting, where he became so angry he actually picked up his stapler from his desk, and heaved it across the room, narrowly missing one of my co-workers!

Ah, the stories we can tell.  We can talk for hours about examples of poor leadership skills displayed by those we have known, or worked for, and some of those stories can be downright entertaining!

Strong Nonprofit Leaders

But ask yourself, who have you known that you would consider a true leader – one that you would work for or follow again?  What traits or skills did they possess that made them an effective leader?   Make a list of those traits.  Then ask yourself – do I model those behaviors?

The “experts” are predicting a “dearth of leadership” in the nonprofit sector over the coming decade. (    I would argue that the current economic challenges, as well as the rapid changes in our society, create a need for true leadership in our nonprofit organizations now.  There are, and will continue to be opportunities a-plenty for those that are willing to not just manage – but lead.  The question is, however, not if we need leadership, but what are we doing today to develop not only ourselves, but others, as leaders?

I recently spoke with a President of a large nonprofit, who told me that training and development was a luxury they simply could no longer afford.  I would argue that they can’t afford not to invest in their employees.

With a little creativity, training and development costs can be minimized; but the long term cost to the nonprofit community if it fails to develop effective leadership is another matter.

Thanks to Sheila Moore, former Executive Director for the Center for Nonprofits in Chattanooga, TN, for this article.