When I found myself in the unlikely position of President/CEO of a major New England non-profit, I was immediately struck by the subtle seductions that accompanied the title. I was suddenly offered more deference by people I had worked with for decades. My words of support and encouragement carried more weight. No one ever interrupted me. Bad news was withheld, in the interest of “not bothering” me. A hush would come over the room when I entered.
Perennially suspicious of hierarchical systems, I tried to remain conscious of the impact these deferences were having on me. It is challenging not to enjoy how easy it is to influence others, the way doors open effortlessly, the respect I was afforded inside and outside the organization. I could avoid the things I didn’t enjoy by delegating them. I could feast on the frequent flattery that is part of the daily diet of a CEO.
Perhaps the most powerful pitfall is the power to manipulate, whether it’s influencing how stories are told, or leveraging desired behavior.
As committed as I was to being authentic, collaborative, transparent, and curious, those “ideal” characteristics of a 21st century leader, I know I fell prey, at times, to the trappings of power, as everyone does.
So the adage that power can corrupt remains alive and well in our world. The self-aggrandizing, narcissistic behavior of our current president is an extreme example.
Leadership, though, is still necessary, as organizations face the complexity and dilemmas inherent in the contemporary organizational landscape. So how do we balance the pitfalls of power with the need for innovative leadership?
Research tells us is that the most successful leaders are more committed to service than to their own personal success. They know how to listen deeply. They build a culture of collaboration, allowing others to shine. They are willing to surface their own vulnerabilities, and encourage others to do so. Most important, they commit themselves and their organizations to an ever-unfolding process of learning, welcoming mistakes as clues to where in the organizational system there are opportunities for improvement.
One of my mentors warned that often the organization’s leader is often the last to know what’s really going on in an organization, because of the desire, fear-based or not, to protect her from bad news. This classic organizational dynamic is not helpful.
In my leadership-coaching practice, I often hear the following refrain about a challenging employee: “It’s her personality! I can’t expect her to change!” I question this assumption regularly. Anyone exhibiting difficult personality traits that interfere with job success deserves the chance to work on them. I know I have done yeoman’s work to address my own personality challenges, thanks to supervisors along the way who took the trouble to tell me about them. But what of the person at the top lacks humility or the capacity for listening and learning? Is that remediable?
Through years of leadership consulting and coaching, I have encountered many organizational leaders who learn humility through the school of hard knocks. In the process they discover that self-knowledge and reflection are critical pathways to effectiveness. They learn to try to make it easier for people to give them feedback, by asking, by checking out reactions to their behavior, and by letting people know what they are working on personally to improve their leadership. And they devote themselves to developing the leadership strengths of those around them. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Leaders need a posse of people, in and outside the organization, who will be honest with them and support their learning process.
So, leaders, beware of the inevitable seductions of your office.
And don’t--ever--go it alone.
I have had the good fortune to encounter dozens of great non-profit organizations since I began my leadership consulting and coaching career nine years ago. But it is the people who stir me. I have these peak experience moments sometimes, more often than you would think, when someone speaks a hard truth and a group transforms-or when an idea emerges like a burst of light in a meeting room- or an individual in a coaching session sees a potency in herself she didn’t know was there.
I have energetic responses to these moments, when I feel electric, a sparkle in my body. When it happens, I know I’m experiencing a confluence of truth and love.
We’re not supposed to talk about love, but I see it everywhere. I see staff build relationships over time where their support for each other is profoundly nourishing, in the hardest situations. I see it when new people come into an organization and they are enfolded and given an immediate sense of belonging. I see it in the extraordinary compassion staff can have for the most frustrating and downtrodden of clients. I see it all the time in the vision and inspiration of board and staff leaders who want to make the world a better place and know they can only do it by helping midwife the potential of others.
Nonprofit organizations have plenty of challenges. Their leaders often grow up doing the work in the trenches and don’t instantly know how to stretch into leadership. Their infrastructures are vastly under-resourced. People are afraid to hold each other accountable. They get overwhelmed and hold grudges, and keep elephants under tables, as do humans in groups everywhere. They lose focus on results. These are the things I can help with.
But after 9 years of being in the trenches with people doing extraordinarily hard work, I have to say that love goes a long way toward creating a prevailing brilliance, a spirit of collaboration and determination, a commitment to service, a tenacity that endures.
And I don’t just see love. I feel it. I fall in love, if you will, again and again with the people who care for our children, protect our lands and wildlife, house the poor, the homeless, the disabled and the mentally ill, and go to battle to protect the planet.
So thank you to all of you, who remind me every day how powerful our love can be in creating work places that nourish hope for a better world.