The Common Predicament
"Meetings and speeches and decisions — oh my!"
We all have personal reasons for working or serving in the nonprofit sector, and they are not necessarily all altruistic. Perhaps we appreciate the distinctive organizational culture nonprofits tend to have (in comparison to commercial enterprises) or the community connections that we often gain by being associated with a nonprofit.
Yet nearly all of us have joined the nonprofit sector, whether as professionals or volunteers, because, whatever else we might desire from the experience, we also want to make a positive difference. We want to make some contribution to the common good, however defined.
So we get involved. We join a board or we take a new job. Then, either quickly or gradually, we become immersed in the ebb and flow of the organization’s life and we are content that we are “doing a good thing.”
Yet no matter what the organization is or what it does, that contentment is eventually disturbed. One scenario is that we come to a crisis. We need to make a decision (or support one) that will be controversial and incite criticism, even opposition. It is a situation that calls for the courage of boldness.
The other scenario is less dramatic but no less problematic. We become exhausted and start to burn out. The road to progress – to actually having an impact – begins to appear endless, and we wonder if we will ever accomplish anything even close to what we originally set out to do. It is a situation that calls for the courage of perseverance.
The Courage of Boldness
It is often said that leaders are recognized by their ability to do three things consistently well:
- lead a meeting
- deliver a speech
- make a decision
Taking a stand on matters of substance comes with the territory of leadership. It cannot and indeed must not be avoided.
Sometimes it is easy, of course. We take positions which are popular with our constituencies and doing so brings joy to us and to them. At other times, though, it is just the opposite. Responsible stewardship of our institution requires that we make tough decisions which will be unpopular at least and give rise to virulent objection at worst.
This latter scenario could be the fate of many of you as programs are downsized and staffing is reduced and cash reserves are depleted. We are entering a time when boldness will be called for repeatedly.
In such a time as this then, it becomes critically important to accept the sober reality of authentic leadership: In order to reach the farther goal of contributing to the common good, periods of painful steps are unavoidable.
In these periods, equal measures of self-confidence and openness to others is critical to survival. On the one hand, you must not waver once having reached the point of personal conviction. On the other hand, you must not close yourself to the possibility of receiving new information and insight which lead to new conclusions.
Lincoln (who has been much in the press again these days) held this balance of self-confidence and openness extraordinarily well. It was one of the essential factors of his political genius. Thurlow Weed, one of Lincoln’s political associates, said, “His mind is at once philosophical and practical. He sees all who go there, hears all they have to say, talks freely with everybody, reads whatever is written to him; but thinks and acts by himself and for himself.”
We could not have a better example to which to aspire amidst the present economy.
A Final, Personal Reflection
In a second installment, I will focus on the other aspect of courage of commitment, that of perseverance. For now let me close with a personal observation from my twenty-plus years in the nonprofit world.
At its best, every organization holds to a single essential noble purpose. It has been created to teach or to heal or to preserve or to provide.
In any given context, a leader, too, is given a single essential mission, the success of which is critical to the organization’s success. It may be that the leader’s mission is to rebuild. Or it may be to reorganize. In good times, it may be to expand or to professionalize. Whatever it is, the authentic leader will know it… and proceed with determined commitment. And while open to new understanding, he or she will not be swayed by passing storms of criticism. He will do the right thing, thinking and acting by himself and for himself.
In addition to being an Associate Faculty member in the M.A. in Organizational Management Program of Antioch University Los Angeles, Guest Blogger David Norgard is the founder of OD180, a consulting firm that develops strategies for nonprofit organizations. He has also held leadership roles on various nonprofit boards and committees. At present, he serves as the President of Integrity USA, the Episcopal Church’s LGBT advocacy group. A graduate of AULA’s M.A. in Organizational Management program, David currently serves as Chair of AULA’s Alumni & Community Advisory Board. He also holds a B.A. magna cum laude from Augsburg College and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, where he received a Dean’s Citation for Community Service and an Award of Distinction among Alumni.