Are you a dictatorial boss or a dynamic nonprofit leader?

I think too many nonprofit leaders don’t really know how to lead. Instead they just boss people around.

Having a title means you have authority. But authority isn’t the same as leadership.

In fact, too often people get into positions of authority only to become dictators, not leaders.

It’s sad because nonprofits desperately need leaders.

So what is leadership?

We’ve been talking about this quite a bit at MarketSmart because we’ve grown so much.

With growth comes the need to distribute decision-making among our staff. Otherwise, every decision would have to go through me and I just don’t have the time to carefully consider every move we make anymore.

As a result, it has become necessary for me to teach others how to lead (make decisions other staff will not only accept but also appreciate). This has been quite challenging and we’ve learned a lot very quickly.

So, today I thought I’d share some of my learnings to help you or someone you care about understand what leadership is really about. I hope it helps.

First… FEAR!

It is essential to recognize that most “issues” among staff arise out of fear. It’s really just that simple.

When people experience fear, they seek safety and security. Then, if they can’t find it, they become frustrated and angry. Soon, they withdraw (to ensure safety) and just bide their time — waiting to get back at someone or a group, waiting for a new job to come along so they can jump ship, and waiting so they can get home to their family and friends while doing as little as possible to rock the boat. The consequence is reduced productivity.

Therefore, I believe it is a leader’s job to – first and foremost – make sure everyone feels safe. Safety reduces fear. Removal of fear increases productivity.

Next, it’s about them — not you.

When you imagine becoming a leader, you conjure up images of people serving you. But that’s not really how it works. In fact, it’s just the opposite!

Once you get put in a leadership role, you have to forget about what you want and, instead, put the needs of others ahead of yours. As the great author of several books on success written during the Great Depression once said:

You can succeed best and quickest by helping others to succeed.

— Napoleon Hill

In other words, as a leader your job is to serve and support, not to dictate and demand.

Last, here’s a list I gave my staff as they took on leadership roles:

  • Seek and find ways to give, give, give to them
  • Everyone likes to feel valued and appreciated so catch them doing things right and give ‘em props
  • Show empathy for what they do and the challenges they face
  • Ask questions about them, their situation
  • Seek their advice about you and how the company (organization) can improve so everyone wins (yes, it’s all about them but within reason… the company/organization must hit its goals)
  • Be approachable by consistently listening carefully with an open mind and encourage feedback on anything and everything
  • Be fair, honest and straightforward (otherwise… if you don’t, you’ll lose trust)
  • Understand what they are seeking to gain and how they want to make progress and find meaning in their lives, then try to help them get what they want
  • Communicate clearly about the needs of the company/organization
  • Then try to gain buy-in by first seeking input, then collaboration, and finally by making it their idea, not yours
  • Attack issues immediately, don’t let them linger (in other words, for instance, if they won’t buy in and give back to help the company win – and they only care about themselves – point out that that is not the kind of character we want here)
  • When you succeed, give the credit to everyone else

I hope that helps.

I’m sure I’ll be learning more about leadership as we continue to grow. As I do, I’ll share what I’ve learned and hopefully it will help you and your organization thrive as well.


P.S. – If you have thoughts or learnings you’d like to share, please do so in the comments section.



Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Kelley R.J. Tetzlaff
4 years ago

Greg, this is an outstanding focus and topic. Thanks for sharing- sadly your contrast of “authority vs. leadership” is all to often seen. And not just in not-for-profits but in churches and business settings. Heck, even in the home if your think about it! Nice work.

Jay Browning
4 years ago

Greg, great points here. I would add the following:
Fundraisers who do well and achieve their goals, get… Promoted and now, I guess by osmosis are supposed to know who best to lead others. My mentor and well-known author on this subject – Dr. John C. Maxwell says that “everything rises and falls on leadership”. It is about others – not you! But… you must know how to lead yourself before you can ever effectively lead others. He also states “good leaders make followers, great leaders make more leaders”. We have to be willing to help others but also how to help them understand what a leader is. Model the behavior you desire. All the best

Samuel Davies
4 years ago

Great post, Greg. Very much appreciated. I wonder if you would ever consider speaking about this topic on the Charity Chat podcast? – our audience would be very interested.

Marnie Van Wyk
4 years ago

Thanks for sharing these helpful tidbits – especially the list. I’m in the process of onboarding new staff, and of course want this to go as well as possible. Great timing for me with this article – much appreciation!

Jay Browning
4 years ago

Read more, Greg. He’s got over 80 to choose from!

Adele Dietrich
Adele Dietrich
3 years ago

This is really good, Greg! My experience in 20+ years in the non-profit sector is that excellent leadership is rare, because it is not taught. Add to that the vast diversity of duties the leader has, and you find a staff who wants to achieve, but has a vague vision, little support, and no clear direction. Keep putting your ideas, observations, and lessons learned out there!

Get smarter with the SmartIdeas blog

Subscribe to our blog today and get actionable fundraising ideas delivered straight to your inbox!