It was an informal gathering of board members, and the conversation went from sports to kids in college and to the progress of their business. Harmless. Neutral.

And then someone said: “This might be a little delicate, but it feels like we have a leadership problem here. The organization is not growing. In fact, we’re going backwards.”

The conversation devolved into an informal review of the leader of the organization who was not present.

By the time these good folks had finished, they pretty much had concluded that they did not have a good leader to run the organization, and that the lack of leadership was negatively affecting the growth of the organization.

There’s a saying that goes like this: “The fish stinks at the head”. A little gruesome, I know. But it’s true. If something is fundamentally not working in an organization, it’s because of a deficiency in the leader.

So, who needs a leader? We all do. But I would modify the point to say we all need a GOOD leader. What makes a good non-profit leader? Here are some qualities that Jeff and I have observed.

A good non-profit leader:

  • Is Accountable. This is pretty hard to accomplish in a world of big egos, pride, and self-sufficiency, but this one is really important. If you can’t let someone anyone speak into your life, you’re lost.
  • Is Authentic. You know what it’s like to be around a fake person. It’s shallow and it leaves you wanting more. A good leader / manager / employee is real, top to bottom. And hanging out with people who are truly authentic is refreshing and energizing.
  • Is Consumed with Fostering a Positive Culture. It’s about creating a place for everyone along common values and objectives. It’s NOT about creating a place for the leader big difference.
  • Despises Bureaucratic Paralysis. To this person, it’s about getting stuff done rather than all the rules, regulations, policies, and processes. Yes, you have to manage structure and process, but the focus is on doing it in a healthy way with fluidity and flexibility.
  • Loves to Get Results Through Others. This is someone who recognizes the important technical, emotional, and spiritual contribution that every person can make and works hard to orchestrate them together.
  • Is Kind – and can still be firm. This person can be compassionate while guiding others through difficult situations.
  • Knows and Manages the Difference Between the Hard and Soft Sides of Management. One has to do with physical assets, the other with emotions, relationships, and attitudes.
  • Balances Life at Work and at Home. This person knows how to turn off work and focus on family and others while reserving time for themselves.
  • Is Driven by a Set of Values. There is something bigger that drives this person. It’s not just money, achievement, or recognition, although those might play in. There is a distinct set of values that anchor decision-making, and those values are, essentially, about making the world a better place.
  • Is Not Afraid of Change. This is someone who is a bit restless with the status quo unless it is really working. These people embrace new ways to do things and do not fear failure.
  • Sees Donors, Staff, and the larger Community as Critical Partners. Everyone involved in the organization’s work is seen as valuable and vital to the success of the mission.
  • Finds Service is More Important Than Authority. This person is all about serving others and helping them find their way. They are careful in their use of authority, realizing that using authority is really the last way to lead, not the first.
  • Has a Healthy Relationship to Money. They understand that money is a way to transfer value, not an objective in and of itself. These people control the urge to love money and never let it control them.
  • Is Driven by Opportunity. They’re always looking for opportunity and leading others to think outside the box.
  • Can See the Big Picture. They have a way of seeing what is really going on and not getting consumed or swayed by the often-conflicting details that surround them each day.
  • Is Reflective, Not Reactive. They always take a moment to think, then act, rather than just acting, valuing reflection as a way of gaining wisdom.
  • Values Diversity. They are champions and advocates for diversity, equity, and inclusion, recognizing that the organization is made stronger by listening to diverse perspectives from staff and the population served. They’re committed to justice and willing to address issues of equity, equality, and inclusivity whenever they arise.

There may be points I left off here, and I would be happy to hear your input on that. But the bigger point of this blog is that the value of a leader in a non-profit organization is huge, and who that person is and how they perform will either make or break your organization. Choose carefully.