Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Following the Bread Crumb Trail

In my experience, leadership is more of an art than a science. This is especially true when you examine leadership in the context of the different constituencies of a nonprofit agency. The various stakeholders invested in a charitable mission--from the board of directors to the management staff, from volunteers to program participants—are emotionally invested in past decisions and future outcomes. Leadership will not discover its full potential when it doesn’t make room for the artful accommodation and careful cultivation of these various invested voices.

Over the last ten years, when my own leadership style has been too authoritative and not collaborative enough, I have not seen the level of positive results as opposed to when it has been more of a shared journey. This has become especially true as our organization has grown in size and matured from its start-up phase. I have come to see that process of achieving certain leadership aims is more a task of breaking the goal into little pieces and enabling the constituencies to collaboratively work through the ramifications of the decision.

Today I was reviewing a chapter on “Executive Leadership” in The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management. The authors Robert Herman and Dick Heimovics understand this unique process of guiding stakeholders in leadership. They aptly call it the “laying of a bread crumb trail” where “over time, through various communications, a chief executive points the way to an important decision.” (The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership, 1994, Page 144) The decision is broken up into smaller pieces that naturally overcome emotional interests and lead to a collaborative discussion. In my experience, this is an important reality of nonprofit leadership. The reality of “the way we’ve always done it” is hard to overcome without this technique.

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