Updated: Nov 3, 2022
To be an effective leader takes more than skill. Great leadership is almost an art form. Leaders who can inspire and influence others, and bring an organization’s mission to life leave a lasting impression on those they work with. But, how do they do it? And how do they make it look so easy?
The answer is the right combination of hard and real skills, which I covered in my May blog. Another way to look at it is by analyzing what leadership traits successful leaders exhibit. Today I’ll explain how you can take all the skills that you hold and are learning and apply them to inspire others. This includes how you choose your words, the tone you use, how deeply you listen, how you problem solve and respond to setbacks.
I educate my clients on the most effective leadership traits and help them foster those behaviors in their own style. Together, the right mix of skills combined with the right leadership traits is the foundation for success as a nonprofit leader.
Leadership Traits that Stand Out
From my work, I’ve identified three traits that stand out for the leaders who enjoyed, succeeded and flourished in their role: self-awareness, vulnerability and courage.
One: Self-Aware Leaders
Self-aware leaders know their strengths and are clear about their areas of weakness. They are also open to exploring blind spots and recognizing where and how those blind spots show up in their work.
For example, one person I spoke with explained how she hates to lose. In her mind, this drove her to push the organization to achieve and succeed in a competitive market. However, after exploring blind spots, she realized there were unintended consequences of her competitive nature. It stopped her from deeply collaborating and had her pushing herself and her staff beyond their limits too often.
This leader’s self-awareness allowed her to recalibrate her approach to leading her staff and quantifying success. With a renewed awareness of how her competitive nature could negatively influence staff, she was able to temper her approach and processes. This allowed her staff the room to produce, celebrate and recharge, creating success without breaking them in the process.
Two: Vulnerable Leaders
Vulnerable leadership is defined by openly seeking out honest feedback. These leaders ask for the support they need, admit uncertainty and initiate the hard, but necessary conversations. They are able to make swift decisions knowing that while they might not be perfect, a decision must be made.
A recent executive director reflected that when he first started his role, he thought he had all the answers and didn't need any support or guidance. This enabled him to be a self-starter who got things done. His independent leadership style also had some negative side effects, though. It created a weak and disengaged team with a narrow vision. He was doing all the work, so why did they need to engage? This approach also led to him feeling resentful and burnt out, which made it difficult for him to serve the community to the best of his ability.
As I shared in a previous post, vulnerability is a commitment to being open and truthful. Oftentimes, this starts with the ability to admit uncertainty and the example above is a good reminder that the talents and opinions of staff, volunteers and board members are valuable resources for executive directors. This leader was able to take a step back and realize that while it took more up-front time and attention, engaging staff and allowing them to find their own leadership legs ultimately gave him the space to focus on the bigger picture and strategic needs of the organization. With this new approach, the organization he led was able to grow, expand and thrive.
Three: Courageous Leaders
Courageous leaders realize that fear and concern are part of the job. They take responsibility for shouldering even the uncertain and emotionally challenging aspects of the role. Decisions are made based on the best information they have, with the knowledge that there may be unintended consequences.
I remember talking to a leader who had been fired from her position. When she started the role, she really cared about positioning the organization for success and was trying to take the initiative to make improvements in the organization. But, she was working with a board that was not engaged at all. She tried different tactics to get them to join meetings, answer emails and attend events, yet nothing worked. Instead she got a lot of push-back from the board members.
Feeling nervous for her job, she began to work around them to get things done. This created a dysfunctional organization that wasn’t able to be strategic and led to feelings of resentment across the board and staff. It also sparked a culture of permissiveness that negatively impacted the quality of service the nonprofit provided to the community.
Upon reflection, she realized that working around the board because of her concerns about her job was a short term solution. In the long run, the dysfunctional relationship between her and the board cost her the role anyway. It would have served her better to speak up and find external support to help her engage the board, such as a workshop that addressed the specific challenges or helped create more constructive relationships among executives and board members. An executive coach could have also been useful.
I'm Here to Support Your Leadership Journey
These examples show that the path to leadership is anything but straightforward. Yet we must continue to be self-aware, vulnerable, courageous because this puts us on the path to where thinking and feeling intersect. This is tough work, and yet this is where improvement and change happens.
Again and again, I see how big dreams and goals lose their steam because leaders are not clear how to reach them. As a nonprofit leader, you do not have the luxury to waste money, time and resources.
As a coach and partner who is invested in your success, I bring more than 25 years of experience as an executive, board member, parent and consultant to my coaching relationships. I mentor on the hard skills and provide personalized coaching on the real skills you’ll need to succeed as a leader.
Let me know if I can help you untangle your current challenges, understand what you can and cannot do to effect change, and put your dreams into action. I’d be honored to be part of your journey. Schedule time with me to learn how I can support you or just to say hi. I’d love to hear what you’re thinking!