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How's Your Leadership Cred These Days?

The Great Recession is dragging into year four and there's no question it has left most nonprofits staggering as they try to find some equilibrium under the weight of constricted philanthropy, slashed government funding, and the high stakes competition of foundation and corporate support.  Some institutions are finding gold in big name programs or capital projects, while many struggle to manage the spiraling costs of their "if we build it, they will come" aftermaths.

Event attendance remains predictably unpredictable.   Yet, core audiences in need of programs and services grow.  While the flurry of staff restructuring (read layoffs and furloughs) may now be subsiding, the reality for many (most) nonprofits is that who ever is left is trying to do a lot more with a whole lot less.

So that brings me to the point of today's post:  as the staff or board leader of your nonprofit, how has your credibility held up in the eyes of your staff, volunteers and stakeholders as you've navigated your organization through the last 36+ months?  If they were to grade you on 
  • your openness and communication during tough times; 
  • your ability to continue to move everyone forward, even a little, everyday; 
  • your willingness to be on the lookout for opportunity rather than digging your bunker deeper; or 
  • your empathy and humor under big stress
what kind of a grade do you think they would give you?  Do they respect you more for the collective hell you've been through or do you think they might be more likely counting the days until you step down (if you're counting the days, that might be a clue).

Crisis or challenge -- call it what you will -- can bring out the worst and the best in nonprofit organizations and their leadership.  It can magnify the organizational weaknesses of under-skilled people, poor or no planning, long standing biases, or lack of articulated value that in better times, more flush times, could be overlooked or ignored.  However crisis can also galvanize organizations by refocusing them on core mission and values.  It can tone strategic thinking muscles that got flabby from lack of regular use. 

Former three-term NYC mayor Ed Koch routinely asked constituents, "How am I doing?".  He got great press and undoubtedly some political points for asking the question.  As your organization's leader, how comfortable are you with asking it?  And what would you do with the answers knowing that your leadership cred is on the line?


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