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Defining Success in Nonprofit Leadership




I’m taking a couple of days in my blog to review an article from the March 1978 Harvard Business Review called Zen and the Art of Management by Richard Tanner Pascale. A few days ago, Stephanie Strom had a great piece in the New York Times about the impact of the Omidyar Network and other funders on nonprofit personnel practices. Omidyar’s Sal Gianbanco has done a tremendous job helping GuideStar create a Human Capital Development Plan that looks at every aspect of our most important asset – our people – including compensation, succession planning, performance evaluation and training. The Omidyar Network truly understands that we can’t reach our mission unless we have a team of skilled, motivated, and committed people.

Last week, we explored concepts for improving communication within an organization. Sometimes listening is the best form of leadership. Today we learn a few lessons about adaptability, handling adversity, and ultimately defining success.

To the Easterner, overt strength is not unequivocally a desired attribute. This notion of strength may
be likened to the endurance of coral reefs that survive the massive forces of sea and wind during typhoons. Reefs do not attempt to resist the sea like defiant walls of man-made steel and concrete. Instead, the reef extends wedges out in a seaward direction. The waves deflect off these wedges, one against the other. Consequently their power, rather than directed at the reef, is turned against itself. The reef does not insist on standing higher than the sea. In times of typhoon, the waves wash over the reef. And it survives.

Let things flow. “Success is going straight – around the circle,” says the Chinese adage. How often in organizations does the forcing of events precipitate needless resistance and even crisis? Yet the Western notion of leadership, fueled by the high value placed on logical, purposive, goal-blinded action, impels
many to leap before they look.

From the Japanese vantage point, the sense of incompleteness in our working lives stems from a divergence between what many people seek and what most Western organizations provide. Most people bring three kinds of needs to their organizational existence: a need to be rewarded for what they achieve, a need to be accepted as a unique person, and a need to be appreciated not only for the function performed but also as a human being. The term “reward,” as used here, refers to the tangible payments one receives from an organization (such as salary and promotions) in exchange for services provided.

Why bother, it might be asked, if the result has no impact on the bottom line? By Eastern standards the
bottom line misses the point. It was Socrates (not an Eastern philosopher) who observed that “man is a measure of all things.” Eastern perspective brings……His meaning into fuller view. To the Eastern mind, it is “man [people],” not the “bottom line,” that is the ultimate measure of all things. He is not the source of all things, as some who view man[people] in total command of his destiny might proclaim. Nor is he the objectified contributor to all things, as some organizations appear to presume in weighing his contributions against their costs.

A Japanese, while concerned with the bottom line, is not single-minded about it as many Westerners are. Rather, he proceeds with a dual awareness – that there is a second ledger in which “success” is debited or credited in terms of his contribution to the quality of relationships that ensue. So the professional manager defines his role not only as one who accomplishes certain organizational tasks but also as an essential intermediary in the social fabric.

This suggests a cautionary note for the Western manager: in addition to approaching things purposively, defining problems crisply, and identifying explicitly (which are desirable but not necessarily sufficient traits to manage all problems skillfully), he may also wish to beat in mind that our Western world view
diminishes our sensitivity and skill in managing certain kinds of problems. Such insight may enable us to
avoid using sledgehammers when feathers will do. Eastern ideas provide a metaphor for the acquisition of such skill. “Truth lurks in metaphors.”

How do you think about success? How do you keep the principles of Zen in your nonprofit?

Bob.jpgThe preceding is a guest post by Bob Ottenhoff,  Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.

Topics: Nonprofit Leadership and Practice