It has been noted that teaching and mission-driven leadership are two fields that don’t do enough to document success strategies. In fact, the educator Ken Bain once wrote,
“Teaching is one of the human endeavors that rarely benefits from its past … For the most part, [great teachers’] insights die with them, and subsequent generations must discover anew the wisdom that drove their practices.”
Nonprofits are just as guilty of this, if not more so.
To address this gap, I spent several years documenting the most powerful ideas and most useful techniques I discovered while running mission-driven organizations and observing great leaders, like Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, up close. One product of that was the book When in Doubt, Ask for More: And 213 Other Life and Career Lessons for the Mission-Driven Leader. The 214 success strategies I describe in it – usually in around 4 sentences each – are divided in to 8 categories: board management, fundraising, leadership, people skills, personal wellness, public speaking, running a meeting, and travel.
Here are 5 of my favorite lessons:
- Let your babies leave the nest. Nonprofits often incubate projects that can only find their full expression and have their biggest impact if they later become independent organizations. Despite the many challenges of letting them go, it is often the right thing to do.
- Make the most of mistakes. If you make a mistake with a donor or social investor, don’t give up on the relationship or put your head in the sand and ignore them. With some adroit and timely actions, you can probably turn the mess into a positive.
- Listen to the pessimists. Great leaders are usually optimists and project optimism. But they have much to learn from keeping lines of communication open with internal pessimists, who can keep them grounded and aware of potential pitfalls that, as glass half full people, they might otherwise miss.
- Reward failure. Most people reward success and (to one degree or another) punish failure. My approach has been to encourage people who fail to learn from their setbacks in order to become better professionals. When they do, I reward them almost as much as if they had succeeded.
- Advice is (often) unnecessary. When a colleague or friend shares a problem or burden with you, resist the temptation to give them advice unless they explicitly ask for it. Instead, listen intently and perhaps finally ask, “Is there anything I could do to be helpful to you?”
We all have learned lessons that have proven valuable to us, are not obvious or intuitive to most people, and could be useful to others. As you consider mine, think about your own and by all means share them with people, including me.