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Agile Nonprofit Leadership

One of the most thought provoking books I’ve read over the last few years is The Starfish and the Spider by Rod Beckstrom and Ori Brafman. I was reminded about it as I listened to Bill Drayton’s acceptance speech as he was awarded the Independent Sector’s John W. Gardner Leadership Award for his ground-breaking work with social entrepreneurs at Ashoka. Drayton said organizational change is accelerating at the same pace that Moore’s law is changing computers and predicted that the change to come in organizational structure is “bigger than the industrial revolution and even the digital revolution.” This rate of change means today’s systems and institutions can no longer work. Drayton observed that for hundreds of years the world ran on “hierarchy and repetition.” Now this approach doesn’t work anymore. Relying solely on hierarchy – we’ve come to term them command and control systems – are no longer able to respond quickly or sufficiently enough. Depending on repetition to ensure authority and trust has been replaced by an explosion of information from all directions, thanks to the Internet and new technologies. Drayton believes the only way out of this dilemma is to tear down the walls and make everyone into a change maker. To cause change, we need to create teams – not hierarchies – and make sure that all the pieces are working together. The job of the leader is helping to set the goal and getting everyone to agree on it.

I heard Drayton just as I was completing a helpful book called Leadership Agility by Bill Joiner and Stephen Josephs, recommended to me by our Agile development coach Lyssa Adkins. The authors write about the fact that as the levels of complexity and uncertainty grow we need to be creating “agile” companies – organizations that can nimbly anticipate and respond to rapidly changing conditions.

Agile companies require leadership agility. The authors think most leaders aren’t prepared for this new world. They estimate that only 10 percent are truly ready to lead agile organizations and divide leaders into roughly three groups:

  • Experts (roughly 45 percent of all managers) are strongly motivated to develop subject matter expertise and believe expertise is the leader’s legitimate power. They have a tactical orientation and believe success can be achieved by making incremental improvements to existing strategies. For these leaders, organizational initiatives focus primarily on incremental improvements inside unit boundaries with little attention to stakeholders. I would say many nonprofit leaders fit into this group – subject experts about a cause, but not able to see the big picture.
  • Achievers (about 35 percent of today’s managers) are highly motivated to accomplish outcomes valued by the institutions with which they’ve identified themselves. They realize leaders’ power comes not only from authority and expertise but also from motivating others by making it challenging and satisfying to contribute to important outcomes. Achievers can be highly effective in moderately complex environments where the pace of change requires episodic shifts in corporate strategy. By the way, the authors think most of the level five leaders of Jim Collins Good to Great fall into this category.
  • The authors estimate about only 10 percent of leaders achieve what they call “Catalyst leadership.” These are leaders that are “animated by a compelling vision that includes high levels of participation, empowerment and teamwork where collaboration, decisiveness and candid, constructive conversation are norms.” In this world, senior teams become living laboratories that create this kind of culture within the team and work together to promote and encourage this culture in the organizations they lead. “They are committed to developing a genuinely collaborative team and organizational relationships rooted in a deep sense of shared purpose.”

I asked Drayton about this collaborative team approach. I said it sounded a little bit like a committee, which the nonprofit sector has in excess. Drayton said “committees are poison to change, because they promote a status quo or a lowest common denominator.” Teams are different. They have a shared sense of purpose and share power.

The authors of Leadership Agility believe the level of agility often depends on what type of organization you run and where the manager fits within the leadership team. Some ways to increase organizational agility include:

  • Emphasizing cross-functional teamwork.
  • Setting up cross-functional teams to make needed organizational improvements.
  • Telling stories that highlight the business value of cross-functional teamwork.
  • Rewarding those who take constructive risk-taking is also important.

There’s a lot to think about here. In some ways, these observations seem to be stating the obvious. But if this is so simple, why aren’t we doing it? I think all too often it’s because we don’t know how to think this way. We and our organizations are trapped in old models and we often don’t even recognize it. The authors’ advice can best be summed up by two familiar quotes that seem to fit the Agile strategy perfectly:

Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.”

Lao Tzu: “Best leaders are the ones that when they finish people say we did this ourselves.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice