Anyone who has ever played a sport has probably heard too many lectures about the importance of “leadership” in winning the game.  Whether on the field or in the nonprofit or corporate board room, whether it is Jack Welch or Michael Jordan, leadership is valued as the key ingredient to success. In fact, surveys of business owners indicate that although 86% of respondents rank leadership talent as an urgent or important issue, only 13% say they are doing a good job of developing leaders within their organizations. It is a topic that is on top of the list of priorities, but often little is done about encouraging good leadership

Leadership in the nonprofit community is as key to an organization achieving its mission as it is for any other type of business.

The place to begin is by agreeing that great leaders can be developed.  The skills involved are not necessarily part of our DNA, but rather, they are traits that can be taught. In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Dan Goleman points out that the best leaders are those who have emotional intelligence (EI).  These are the leaders with self-awareness, able to recognize their own and other’s emotions, while using emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.  Great leaders not only know themselves well, they also seek to understand others around them.  Drawing on their soft skills, these leaders are more effective in social and professional interactions, helping to reduce conflict and increase participation, looking beyond their own frame of reference to understand human differences that may be based on cultural, generational, gender or racial diversity.

In spite of the wide range of opinions, there are some common attributes and talents that are universally accepted as signs of a good leader – most especially those who are tasked with inspiring volunteers, staff and donors. These include:

  • Listening skills
  • Sincerity
  • Empathy
  • Coaching
  • Empowering the team
  • Giving credit to others
  • Courage to make tough calls
  • Insightful and attuned
  • Visionary
  • Enthusiasm, energy and passion
  • Core values
  • Conflict resolution
  • Humility

While each of these is critical to the final outcome as a great nonprofit leader, the reality is that there are many different leadership styles. What’s most important is knowing which style is most effective; and that means understanding and assessing the situation and finding the best approach.

When an organization is in a crisis or turn around mode, an authoritative or even coercive leader may be the right choice for making smart, quick decisions.  For example, what if the nonprofit has experienced bad press due to an embezzlement? How does the leader restore confidence? 

On the other hand, when buy-in is required for success, a democratic leader who builds camaraderie and encourages collaboration within the nonprofit – or even between various nonprofits that are working together on a common cause -makes the most sense.

Transformational leaders, strategic leaders and charismatic leaders all have a unique role to play under certain circumstances and at different times within a nonprofit.

Often it is the mix of characteristics and the unique situations that shape the most effective leadership style.  But one thing is consistent: being considerate is always an indispensable quality. This means that the finest leaders are inquisitive and smart but they are also appreciated for their warmth, inclusiveness and inspirational outlook. 

What’s the most meaningful advice for nonprofit leaders-in-training? Create a nurturing environment where people strive to be their best by tapping into their own emotional intelligence and thereby avoiding the potential for confusion, disruption and low moral which can stop the organization from reaching its goals.