Inspiring Leadership: Focus on the big picture

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

As a nonprofit leader, you have a great deal to do over the course of your day and it can be easy to lose focus on the big picture. You are likely caught up in the detail of writing reports, making sure programs are running how they should, and obsessively trawling the internet for new funding. These are all important aspects of the job.

But as leaders, we also have a bigger job to do. We need to give our people someone to follow and something to aspire to and work toward. We need to support their work with a bigger picture. And, as mentioned in the previous article in this series, Inspiring Leadership: A Crucial Competency, that bigger picture is not about ‘keeping the doors open’. The bigger picture is the cause that the organization is supporting, fighting, reducing, or working toward eradicating. Nonprofit organizations are about social change. Making a difference is the mandate. Your employees are, for the most part, working for you because of that big picture - because let’s face it, the salary and the pension (what pension?!) aren’t likely to be the main draw - amiright?

So how do we stay focused on the big picture as leaders and keep our people inspired?

Strategic thinking

It’s our job as a leader to think big, both in terms of the issue we are working on and the community we are working within. Yes, we have a responsibility for making sure that our programs are run well, and being able to spot successes and challenges is crucial. However, we hire program staff to do the actual work so that we can step back and see the horizon.

Understanding the broader terrain of the sector we are part of enables us to gain insights into what is happening overall, thereby helping us to position our agency to meet any changes coming down the pipeline and enabling us to be more innovative and responsive overall. Employees are inspired when they know that their leader is aware of, and part of, the conversations, actions, and innovations that help drive social change at the higher level. They feel like their organization is part of something bigger than itself and is actually working toward making a difference.

Have a cause focused strategic plan

I have seen many nonprofits take the business approach to strategic planning that involves creating strategic goals that are all or mostly inward facing. They are focused on the organization’s growth and goals rather than being community or cause focused. In business, there is much talk about ‘the biggest’ and ‘the best’ and that is now translating into some of our strategic plans too. This approach doesn’t belong in the nonprofit sector where, although we compete for funding, we need to be careful about being overly competitive. If we are to make the BIG social changes, we need to work together rather than against each other.

When you are doing your strategic planning, make sure the majority of your goals are focused on the change you are trying to make. Otherwise, you will find yourself naval gazing at the board and leadership level for 3-5 years and your staff engagement will deteriorate. They love your organization for the work you are doing, not its position in the ‘market’. Having a cause focused strategic plan also helps the board to stay focused on the big picture too. Internal goals often translate to focusing on operational matters and that, ultimately, is not the board’s role, or where you want them to be spending all of their time. When an organization has a big vision beyond its own growth and/or survival, everyone feels more inspired.

Reflect on progress toward the vision and mission

Checking in on progress toward accomplishing the vision and mission of the organization is not just about updating the board scorecard. Although that’s important in terms of measuring overall performance, it doesn’t necessarily help people to understand HOW the vision and mission is being accomplished. And, too often, the information produced for the board is not shared with the people doing the actual work, or it’s shared in a way that is inaccessible to them because they were not part of creating it. It’s important to have processes for helping our employees to feel like they are not only part of, but helping to drive, the progress toward the social change our organizations wants to make in the world. Collective conversations of ‘how are we doing?’ in team meetings are an easy way to enable staff to help assess progress in meeting the vision and mission. You can also create more engaging reports for your board and staff team that demonstrate how and whether you are having the impact you imagined.

Have a big picture for your own leadership

Now this may seem counter-intuitive to focusing on the big picture of your organization and staying cause, rather than internally focused. However, to be inspiring, leaders need to have a good sense of who they are and who they want to be as leaders. We need a big picture for and about our own leadership. Some crucial questions that leaders need to ask ourselves are:

  • What kind of leader do I want to be?
  • What are my values?
  • What are my strengths and where could I do better?
  • What impact do I want to have with my staff?
  • What legacy do I want to leave behind as a leader when I am done?
  • What do I want/need to learn to be a better leader?

When we know what our big picture is of who we are as leaders, we can check in with ourselves to see whether we are on track or if we need to make some changes in how we are doing things. A leader that is inspired to be a better leader, is a leader that inspires others.

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

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 or find out more about her services at

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