The Leadership Conundrum

Next week  (October 21, 2013 at 6pm) I’m taking part in a panel on Leadership in the Non-Profit sector at Marymount California University .  Naturally, that is causing me to think a lot about leadership and (because it is always about me) whether I consider myself a nonprofit leader.

Before I can actually decide whether I am or not, I need to get more clarity about what I think leadership is. I remember in my MBA courses too long ago, there were always conversations about the differences between managers and leaders. Managers, it was posited, ensure that the vision of leaders gets implemented. Managers plan, organize and implement, this theory says.  The leader looks to the future and has a clarity of what that future looks like.   But just having a vision no more makes one a leader than being the boss means you have leadership abilities.  A leader must also be able to be able to inspire, yes—but equally important—to ensure that the things necessary to implement the vision get done.

Too often, I have seen charismatic executive directors (and consultants) get a Board all excited about a new program, strategic director and yes, even fundraising!  In the moment, they are ready to get in line and follow that person anywhere.  But then, when the ED mounts her steed and picks up her banner, the rank fades away.  And as she gallops out onto the field, she discovers that the banner has become a target rather than the flag she had thought it would become.

The more I’ve been thinking about this, the more I wonder if leadership is the focus we should have.  Perhaps more important than leadership is passion—the passion to accomplish, to change the world.  The true job of a nonprofit professional is, I think, to ignite that passion in others.  That’s really what fabulous fundraisers do.  It doesn’t matter if they developed the vision or merely adopted someone else’s.  What is important is that they can share that vision and get others to adopt it as their own.

Perhaps it is the nature of our work.  Our sector generally values community over competition. 

But community without direction gets very messy indeed.  Which brings me back—full circle—to the questions about leadership and management. And the sense that you really can’t have one without the other, for ideas without implementation are no better than not having any ideas to implement at all.

 Janet Levine works with nonprofits helping them to increase fundraising capacity.  Learn more at  Contact her at