Inspiring Leadership: Dare to care

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

In this leadership series we have looked at a number of different ways to help us to be more inspiring leaders. We’ve talked about focusing on the big picture, listening deeply, storytelling and being brave. However, this week’s article is THE MOST important thing you need to do to be an inspiring leader. If you don’t do this, all of the other approaches and techniques won’t matter.

To be an inspiring leader, you have to care. And, just as importantly, you have to demonstrate that you care. You have to show it. And you have to show it in a number of different areas in order to be truly inspiring. Caring breeds loyalty and increases your influence as a leader. It gives you credibility and allows you room to fail sometimes because your people give you the benefit of the doubt. And although I give this advice to leaders in every sector, caring is fundamental to our work in the nonprofit sector. If you don’t care, no one else will either. And you will not achieve the social change your organization says it wants to make in the world.

To be an inspiring leader you need to DARE to do the following.

Dare to care about the cause

Whatever cause your organization supports or the social change it’s trying to make, you have to be its champion. It may or may not be THE thing you care most about in the world but in order to inspire others to invest their energy, time or money, you need to demonstrate that you do care about making some sort of change. You can do this by increasing your knowledge, developing relationships with other people that are in similar or related areas, and by getting out of your office and talking about it. Join a local planning table, go to a local Council meeting, or ask to speak at a service club. The more you get to know about the cause and the more you talk about it, the more you will care about it. And that is what will inspire others to care about it too.

Dare to care about your people

In ‘business’ leadership for many years, there has been a philosophy about not showing your staff that you care too much about them. Caring, as the story goes, will only lead employees to take advantage of you and they won’t do their best work. Nonsense! As we have seen by the dismal employee engagement rates across the globe, this approach is not working in today’s environment (if it ever did) and we need to think about leadership in terms of connection rather than capitulation. It is our responsibility as leaders to connect people to their work, to each other and to ourselves. Increased connection means increased inspiration and productivity.

Dare to care about the people you serve

When I am delivering my leadership development workshops with nonprofit staff, we talk about the people they ‘serve’. In almost every workshop, someone puts up their hand and says ‘but I thought we served our funders’. My emphatic ‘NO’ takes them aback every time. Sadly, because of our continual conversations about funding and money in the sector and within our organizations, we have too often given the impression that we serve our funders. But we don’t. We serve our clients/customers. As a leader, it is up to you to demonstrate that caring about the people you provide services for is important within your organization. You can do that by spending more time talking about your services rather than money and asking front-line staff to share their stories and their experiences in meetings, etc. You can also make time to sit and listen to the people who are accessing your services. Showing you care about the people you serve inspires your staff to do the same.

Dare to care about your funders and donors

So if our funders and donors aren’t who we serve, who are they? I think of anyone who gives money to an organization as an ‘investor’. And, as an investor, it’s important to me that I know what they care about so that I can make sure I care about that too. What is the bigger change they want to make in the world? What’s important to them when it comes to reporting? How will they know if their investment has made a difference? When we approach our relationship with our funders with caring, we help them to care about us too. We inspire them to want to give even more.

Dare to care about your board

Too often, we get a little desperate about recruiting board members in the nonprofit sector. I call it the ‘warm body’ approach to board recruitment. If they have a pulse, they’re in! It’s amazing that we go through an entire recruitment process for staff at all levels but then don’t do our due diligence when it comes to the most senior leadership position in the organization. And, even when we do have a process, we look for skills. Legal, HR or financial skills are viewed as the most important contributions a board member can make. And then we get frustrated because our board is too risk averse or doesn’t care enough about the work to make decisions that could actually move the cause forward or serve our clients better. We need to put caring back on the table for board members. Passionate board members are better aligned for passionate leaders who want to make a difference in the world. And, your organization will achieve more if caring exists within all levels of leadership.

Dare to care about yourself

With all this caring about others, it is easy to forget that we need to care about ourselves. In fact, we need to do this first. Why? Because the first thing that goes when we start burning out is our compassion. We stop caring for and about others when we run out of energy. And then we complain or get frustrated a lot, often ending up in the land of martyrdom. This erodes any ability we have to inspire our people. To be an inspiring leader, you need to be able to FEEL inspired. That means taking time outs, having time off and working at a pace that enables you to be refreshed and re-invigorated every day. Putting yourself first some of the time helps you to care about others the rest of the time.

So that’s it. If you care about the work you do, about the people around you and about yourself, you have what it takes to be an inspiring leader. But remember that you also need to show your caring in lots of different ways in order to inspire others.

Go on! I dare you to care!

Lianne Picot helps new & aspiring leaders to become INSPIRING leaders through coaching and training. Lianne has worked in the nonprofit sectors in the UK, Ireland and Canada for over 25 years as a practitioner, Executive Director and CEO. She 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 the creator of ‘The Leadership Leap’, an online leadership course that helps new & aspiring leaders to become inspiring leaders so they can increase their influence and have more impact. Connect with Lianne at lianne@bluemorpho.co or find out more about her services at www.bluemorpho.co and www.theleadershipleap.net.

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