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Leadership Matters

For those of you who don't know, I love HBR. The blog, management tip of the day (links to the email sign-up), and the magazine are great. When we get issue in the office I am usually the one hoarding it. I actually have a deal with another coworker. If she gets the new issue first, she has to share it with me when she is done. 

It should comes as no surprise that this article on nonprofit leadership hit an accord with me. Leadership is a must. As the article shows, you organization will not achieve all that it can without a strong leader and a shared vision. Look at how much leaders aid the organization, how much of a difference they make and how passionate are they about the mission. Those are the promoters you want as the public face of your mission. If they are a skilled leader, they are not only who you need, but the ones you should want. You should cultivate them and encourage their development. 

Developing the future generations is even more vital. Yes, vital. What is going to happen when you are gone? What is going to happen when your senior and executive staff are gone? Who is going to replace them? What is your succession plan? Even at the manager level, you should be preparing your spot for the next person. At the senior and executive level, you should be training your direct reports. They need to be learning leadership and management skills that will take this, and their next, organization to the next level. 

Additionally, any good leader will tell you that there is an expiration date on their leadership. At some point, for the good of the organization, they will need to move on. It will be difficult, but it happens. The life-cycle will continue. I am tired of the argument that great leaders and talent will leave if you invest in them. It is necessary. Investment is necessary for them and for you. What good is a stagnant nonprofit or staff member? You need new blood to keep the momentum going and for change to continue. It is a natural life-cycle and we should embrace it. 

OK, enough of my preaching on leadership. The HBR post, Does Leadership Really Matter in Non-Profits:

Does leadership really matter? The executive director of a new foundation asked me that question earlier this year. At first I thought he was joking — after all, helping nonprofits attract and develop passionate and highly skilled leaders is part of what we do at Bridgespan. The back of my business card even says "leadership matters."

It seems clear to me that leadership is the most important of the three legs nonprofit organizations stand on (the other two being strategy and capital). Nonprofits can develop sound strategies and attract sufficient capital, but without strong leaders at the helm, they're unlikely to deliver outstanding results.

But maybe I shouldn't have been taken aback by the ED's question. Leadership often doesn't get its due in the nonprofit sector. A common sentiment is that good leaders and their teams are expensive to acquire and keep. Wouldn't that money be better spent on programs that aid those in need rather than on salaries? That fiscal response is often conflated with the belief by some in nonprofit circles that passion can overcome nearly any obstacle.

I replied to the question from the foundation head by telling him stories about nonprofit leaders who had achieved wonderful outcomes for their organizations, instances where pre- and post-trend lines of impact and performance clearly showed that something had changed for the better because of these executives' actions.

In some instances, such as that of Geoffrey Canada at Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), the leader's impact has been publicly acknowledged. President Obama selected the HCZ model as a template other cities can use to tackle the tough issues of their inner cities. The President had become aware of HCZ while still a senator, and had long endorsed Canada's work. He saw in Canada what others had — a hands-on, passionate manager with a solid track record of successful fund-raising and of developing effective community-based programs aimed at helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds grow into productive adults.

Other leaders are less well known — people such as David Nelson, a former IBM executive who became the executive director at the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NTE) and helped the organization increase the number of youth it served from 6,800 in 2001 to more than 50,000 in 2009. Nelson came to the role with a strong operations background and well-honed project management skills, both of which perfectly complemented the sitting CEO's deep fund-raising and marketing skills. Together they were able to develop and implement a business plan that increased NTE's impact sevenfold.

These and a few other stories I shared helped to convince the foundation director (and eventually his board) that he needed to expand the leadership-development efforts in his organization.

What about you? Would you have been similarly convinced?

Do you think leadership really matters? If someone asked you, how could you persuasively answer that question? If you serve on a nonprofit board, do you live out your beliefs? How do you ensure that your organization values leadership?