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Leadership Skills Demanded By Today’s Economy

By Derrick Feldmann

(April 6, 2009) As today’s economy places immense pressure on all nonprofits, leaders of these organizations must make tough decisions regarding programs, staffing and budgets, all while ensuring they continue to meet the needs of their communities.

Balancing these forces requires a new kind of leader—one with the ability to anticipate, confront and overcome challenges rather than dodging them. And what does that leader look like? He or she likely will exhibit the following attributes.

Proactivity. Leaders once were praised for their ability to react to difficult situations; today’s leader must “think forward,” analyzing the future and minimizing obstacles that lie ahead. Doing this requires anticipating challenges, cultivating consensus on desired outcomes and developing and implementing processes for reaching goals. These leaders take time every week to scan the environment of the community they serve and develop solutions and/or mechanisms that ensure the organization serves the community even during challenging times. Today, these leaders aren’t waiting to see what happens; they’re out making things happen to the benefit of the organization and the people who rely on it.

Focus. Today’s leaders are besieged by activities and tasks that bear no relevance to the direction of the organization or its impact on the community. A good leader remains focused on developing strategies, executing plans with staff and ensuring that the organization is equipped to develop and vet new ideas, programs or opportunities. Leaders should delegate all other tasks and focus on a “dashboard” that tracks overarching strategies, programs and impact.

Presence. Commanding attention requires a commanding presence. Today’s leaders are dynamic in demeanor, presentation and action. They understand how to captivate an audience, drive an agenda and present in a manner that attracts a following. Furthermore, these individuals are able to understand how their team operates effectively and find avenues for success. But dynamic communication is not enough—a truly dynamic leader not only rallies support but inspires people to jump into action.

Resilience. The challenges of a tough economy, poor participation numbers or financial setbacks don’t deter a strong leader. He or she instead will attack these challenges head-on, develop solutions and drive others to act on them. They avoid placing blame on outside forces; instead, they focus on solutions. And when they suffer the inevitable setbacks, they recover quickly, get back on their feet and push on to the next challenge.

Self-awareness. Today’s leaders understand their limitations and do not take on initiatives and programs outside their own or the organization’s strengths. Instead, they pass opportunities on to other individuals or organizations better suited for them. Furthermore, they are candid with donors (individuals, foundations, corporations) about not accepting gifts for programs outside the scope of the organization. What’s most impressive is that they have those conversations while still maintaining—and often strengthening—their relationships with donors.

Ambition. In order to attract major gifts, you have to think big. Strong leaders create strategies and plans with donors to meet the needs and vision of the organization, and develop a powerful case for support that inspires donors to think beyond the status quo.

Diversity of focus. A lot of organizations have a very singular approach to pursuing support: They make their case by talking about past success. A strong leader offers a multifaceted case for support: discussing the issues, challenges and solutions confronting the organization today and casting a vision for the future. They develop meaningful relationships with individuals that go beyond solicitation meetings. They welcome conversations with foundation supporters and provide meaningful information about the health and vitality of the organization. 

Clarity of vision. When good leaders speak, others walk away with a visual roadmap for where the organization is going, the steps it will take along the way and the resources needed to get there. Leaders are clear with staff and boards about challenges and strategies, and they provide staff and colleagues with a strong sense of the organization’s direction and purpose.

If you’re thinking about hiring a leader, examining the current leadership of your organization, or leading an organization yourself, consider how your candidates, leaders or you measure up to the attributes above.

Leadership today is not about maintaining the status quo or preserving the successes of the past, but rather pushing forward through challenges, finding solutions and inspiring donors and supporters along the way.

In today’s difficult environment, your organization will succeed or fail in large part because of its leadership. Can you afford to have a leader who does not match well with the list above?

Derrick Feldmann is CEO of Achieve, an Indianapolis-based consulting firm serving the needs of small to medium-sized nonprofit organizations through personal consultation and online philanthropic resources. Their white paper on fundraising in a tough economy is available on their website.

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