Inspiring Leadership: Be brave

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This is the third of a six-part series exploring the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of inspiring leadership in the nonprofit sector. Read the other articles here:

To be inspiring as a leader, we need to be, and be seen to be, brave.

Many years ago, I worked in an organization that was viewed as pioneering and ahead of its time in youth mental health. The organization had co-executive directors and was highly youth-centric. However, the leadership was always a challenge. While very nice, the co-executive directors did not like things messy and they always wanted everyone to feel not just heard but involved in decision making. All decision making. This led to lengthy staff meetings about minor things and distracted us continually from the really important work. I can remember one meeting in particular when the entire staff team (32 people) was gathered in one room in a circle. The important issue to be decided was whether to buy free range coffee. I kid you not. Almost an hour was spent on trying to decide on the kind of coffee we would have in the staff kitchen. Unusually, I did not have a strong opinion on this matter that seemed to be life or death for others. I remember sitting there, looking at the co-executive directors and thinking in my head ‘Go on. Make a decision for us. Be brave.’ But they couldn’t or wouldn’t. The conversation finally fizzled out and no decision was made. I liked my leaders but they failed to inspire me.

To this day, ‘be brave’ has been my mantra as an executive director. Bravery comes in many different forms of course but when I whisper it to myself, it’s not usually about running into a burning building to save people’s lives. I would like to think I would do that if ever in that situation, but being brave as a nonprofit leader requires a different kind of courage. And, while sometimes it does feel like we are constantly fighting fires, it requires a different kind of action.

Being brave, and therefore inspiring, as nonprofit leaders requires us to do the following:

1. Have courageous conversations when needed. When I worked at the youth mental health organization, I worked hard. I spent nights and weekends planning and delivering workshops, doing outreach and providing counselling. My colleague, on the other hand, would sit and surf the net all the time. He did not do his job but they would not talk to him about it. Instead, they brought in a policy about using the internet that restricted the rest of us too. It didn’t help them with the colleague as he then moved onto magazines. It didn’t help them with me either as I lost respect for them completely and lost some of my motivation. Sometimes you need to have an uncomfortable conversation or make an unpopular decision.

2. Advocate for the people you serve. I am using the ‘A’ word deliberately here. For many years advocacy has been viewed as a dirty or dangerous word in our sector. I understand why. However, it’s a new time and we need to step up and stand up for the people we serve, especially if they are vulnerable. The whole point of our sector is to try and help make life better for us and others. If we are unable or unwilling to fight for the corner of our world we are trying to change, things will never be different. Our staff, our donors and our volunteers are all there because they want to see change of some sort. When we advocate for our clients or our cause, we show everyone we care too.

3. Take responsibility. As leaders, what happens on our watch is our responsibility. It is not inspiring or attractive to see a leader throw their team under the bus for poor results. If something has gone wrong, or has not been done well, own it. I have seen leaders actually hide in their office when an angry client came into the organization or tell their board that it was a staff member that was to blame for something that did not get done. Not okay and certainly not inspiring. Taking responsibility is why we get paid the not-so big bucks.

4. Just say no. Desperation makes people do desperate things. And financial desperation has been a sector challenge for quite some time. Not having enough money to do the things you want to do, or used to do is horrible. I understand. However, taking money from sources that impact your values or doing things for funders that undermine the quality of your services has an impact on more than your bottom line. It negatively affects the people who are there to contribute to the cause. When staff are forced to supplement a camp for at risk youth because there isn’t enough money in the budget for food, or they are asked to do things that compromise their sense of fairness all in the name of getting or keeping funding, it erodes their passion and destroys their trust in you as a leader. Not only will they feel uninspired, but the great staff that really want to make that difference will move on. Saying no is sometimes crucial to being an inspiring leader because it shows you and everyone else that you have integrity.

5. Plan to fail sometimes. In the current funding climate, we are told that we need to be innovative but there is little room or appetite for failure. We are acutely aware of the need to not waste money. So, we often play it safe and do what we’ve always done because we know it works right? Well, what if it doesn’t work? What if, in doing the same thing over and over we are merely perpetuating some of the problems that our organization was set up to help solve? If we are too afraid of failure to try anything new, we will never make the social change we want to make in this world. Homelessness, domestic violence, poverty, climate change, etc have been around for quite some time and, sadly, they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, probably. But, they definitely won’t ever be eradicated if we don’t try out new and different approaches. We need to take more risks and try things out more. We need to plan to fail at some things in order to learn what might work better later. Otherwise, the hamster wheel of social change will just keep on turning. And that’s not inspiring for anyone!

Find out more about HOW to be an inspiring leader in the next three articles that are part of this Inspiring Leadership Series. Coming next month, Inspiring Leadership: Listen Deeply.

Lianne Picot is a self-described leadership and story obsessive who has worked in the nonprofit sectors in the UK, Ireland and Canada for over 25 years. Currently, as a Leadership Coach, Strategist, and Trainer, Lianne specializes in helping leaders to be more inspiring. Lianne is a Certified Executive Coach and a Part-time Instructor at The Chang School, Ryerson University, teaching in the Nonprofit & Voluntary Sector Management Certificate program. Lianne is also currently undertaking her Master’s in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) with a focus on workplace learning. She is the creator of ‘The Leadership Leap’, an online leadership program that helps new, emerging and current leaders to be more inspiring, have more influence, and get better results. Connect with Lianne at lianne@bluemorpho.co or find out more about her services at www.bluemorpho.co.

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