Saturday, August 24, 2013

Leadership: No Assumptions

IN MY LAST POST, I WROTE THAT CHANGING CAREERS or career focus is a powerful catalyst for shaking up sedentary thinking. It can reveal new professional perspectives and approaches to problem-solving. It can lead to new skills, networks, and best practices.  (It can also lead to sleepless nights, that slow-rising fear you overlooked something critically important that will come back to haunt you, and the trepidation of mastering a new technology. But that's another story for another time.)

For me right now, it's about revealing the many forms and pathways that organizational leadership can take. 

I've been a staff leader my entire working career. During that time I've learned a lot of leadership lessons, but I've also developed some predictable assumptions about what leaders do and personal expectations about what I, as an organizational leader, do.  Since shaking myself up eight months ago, my leadership assumptions have been tested in ways that often jump out from around a corner to completely take me by surprise, even after all these years. I keep reminding myself that I asked for this.

If you dive head first into the sea of leadership literature out there, you'll soon figure that a good leader is out in front, making the tough decisions, taking the heat, and being respected for all of that.  Indeed, that's a chunk of what leadership can be about.

Some organizations, however, want their leader to be less of the point person and more of a point guard, creating opportunities for others rather than themselves.  And some organizations thrive best when their staff leader is barely distinguishable from the rest of the staff.  More often than not these days, nonprofit leadership embodies all three (point person, point guard, and behind-the-scenes rainmaker), thus requiring a CEO to have a keen ability to read the organizational landscape and then act quickly and nimbly.

I'm intrigued by the quiet, back-of-the-room leadership that so often forms the backbone of many successful nonprofit organizations. It may come from the corner office, but it's just a likely to come from junior staff or the volunteer ranks. The fact is, it can come from anywhere at any time.

While boards of trustees have the critical stake in nurturing an organization's CEO, the CEO and department heads have just as big a stake in nurturing leadership at all levels throughout the organization.

The lesson in all of this is that leadership, or your understanding of it, is an organic thing.  It changes with you as you move through your career, as you move from organization to organization.  It can often look the same, with similar boundaries and expectations, but it is never quite the same.  Do yourself a big favor and don't assume that it is.