Paper boat leading the fleet
Leadership Published Date, 2022

Leading The Business Of Philanthropy: Working With Flawed Leaders

Created By: Amanda K. Nelson
January 24, 2022

Orr Group’s “Leading the Business of Philanthropy” series explores what we’ve learned over the years from collaborating with client organizations and their ambitious leaders. Here, Vice President Amanda Nelson weighs in on what to do about flawed leaders. We welcome your responses on Twitter and LinkedIn. Use the hashtag #LeadingPhilanthropy.

Every leader has their flaws. Just to set the stage, here are a few that I am actively working on:

  • When I think something is right, I get on a high horse and can become myopic.
  • When I’m in new environments, I project over-confidence.
  • I hold grudges.

As the New Year starts, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a leader, to work for and with different leaders, and to navigate the frustrations we face when leaders make mistakes. Just like in for-profit settings, solid leadership is the key to successful nonprofit organizations.

I want to emphasize, I have had the honor of working with amazing, inspirational, and visionary leaders throughout my career, and that flaws don’t mean someone is a bad leader. The best leaders acknowledge their flaws and have a growth mindset to continue building and strengthening their skills.

In the spirit of awareness and annual resolutions, we’ve included some of the most common leadership flaws we’ve experienced through our work with hundreds of organizations, along with approaches and resources to help if you are facing these issues.

  • Leaders who don’t realize they’re shaping organizational culture. We all do better work when our leaders create a culture of gratitude and impact. Nonprofit professionals want our work and time to matter, and our leaders shape that. According to a Glassdoor study, culture is the biggest driver of employee satisfaction. This is especially true in nonprofit organizations; those of us who work in this sector prioritize culture and values over other motivations like compensation and work-life balance. Whether it happens intentionally or accidentally, leaders’ words and actions are helping to determine whether or not people stay on and perform to the best of their ability—or beyond.

What to do about it: Regardless of your role in an organization, you can do your part to foster a culture rooted in support for colleagues and commitment to the mission. Your everyday choices and actions shape culture, and you should continue to accept responsibility for your impact in an organization as well. I recommend building in team acknowledgment, leading employee engagement activities, or providing actual insight into staff morale issues.

Read more: Six Secrets to Improve Your Nonprofit Culture

  • Leaders who are inauthentic. Trust is our currency, and honesty is how we earn it. It is incredibly frustrating to experience any of the following: when leaders promise to do something but never do it; when they are consistently disorganized; when they attribute a decision to someone else without taking responsibility; when they take credit for others’ work; when their grandiose ideas aren’t synced with reality; and when they position themselves as visionaries without having results. These behaviors reflect someone who isn’t being authentic, and teams suffer.

What to do about it: There are times when you should call these behaviors out, especially if they are patterns, and helping create solutions is a great way for you to create transparency, accountability, and trust. Tactically, identify ways to quantify your work and impact, and share these results with your managers and HR to ensure credit is being given where deserved.

Read more: Five Tips to Be an Authentic Leader

  • Leaders who don’t listen. I take part in a lot of strategy meetings. When more junior team members offer up ideas and insights, it’s always encouraging when the senior leader acknowledges and appreciates their contributions. On the other hand, when I notice team members hesitating to express themselves until their boss weighs in first, I sense a top-down culture that is missing out on opportunities and diverse opinions. This, among other things, has helped foster the Great Resignation and eagerness to align personal values with organizational opportunities.

What to do about it: Again, calling out bad behavior isn’t necessarily as effective as modeling good behavior. If you are leading a meeting, build in time on the agenda for listening, even if it isn’t your natural inclination. If you are more junior and have ideas to share, join the conversation, but be intentional about your recommendations and how they could be implemented. Start choosing to amplify other voices in your own communications, especially as a way to help minimize bias.

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  • Leaders who don’t empower others to lead. CEOs and executive directors who view—in Gartner’s rubric— “employees as people” rather than “employees as workers” will not only enrich the employee experience over the long haul; they will foster an organic succession plan that ensures the health of the nonprofit beyond their tenure at the top. In contrast, leaders who hoard power are likely to isolate themselves and send their organizations and top performers into a downward spiral.

What to do about it: Advocating for oneself doesn’t come easily to some nonprofit professionals, but like anything else, it’s a skill that can improve with practice. This is one of the many situations where it helps to have trusted colleagues and mentors who can help you to strategize and be honest. Move away from complaining sessions to empathy sessions, where you can think through new tactics and approaches for your growth and self-advocacy.

Read more: Blending Nonprofit Succession Planning and Executive Transition: A Successful Case

  • Leaders who don’t treat people with respect. I have witnessed and experienced irresponsible, insensitive, and abusive behavior. I’ve fought the good fight and counseled colleagues to move on and accept that a paycheck isn’t worth toxic abuse. You have the power to decide who you follow and the right to be in a role where your work is appreciated. As your career progresses, you also deserve to have the opportunity to build your own leadership skills in a culture where they can flourish. And note, if you are experiencing workplace harassment it needs to be addressed.

What to do about it. Normalize respect. When a leader starts making you question your self-value, it’s time to at least connect with people outside your organization to understand if the behaviors you are experiencing are normal –      and don’t adopt these traits with others. With that said, evaluate if you are experiencing a pattern of behavior or a moment of stress. All of us can be jerks on occasion, so I’d encourage you not to quit in the heat of a bad day. As Warren Buffett likes to say, “You can always tell someone to go to hell tomorrow” and if you really are experiencing a pattern of disrespect, you always have the option to quit later.

Read more: The Do’s and Don’ts of Managing Up

For 2022, I challenge you, regardless of your title, to not only build your own leadership skills but also develop a stronger awareness of your flaws. In addition, think about how you can help the leaders around you, and how you can use your own agency to create more productive cultures, teams, and collaborations.

If you want to talk more about the possibilities or share your own lessons, we’d love to hear more about your experiences and recommendations.

More in this series:

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