Transforming the Way We Think About Leadership

Seven years ago I was I was desperate to find a job that would be the right place to learn what I was good at and truly develop my skills in those areas.  I had a Master’s degree, several years of experience in fine arts and fundraising, in addition to more experience than I had ever hoped for as a waitress, bartender, barista, sales associate, telemarketer and circus jester.  At the end of my search, I landed a job at a foundation.  While I knew I was lucky, I was not so sure I was going to stick around long enough to qualify for a sabbatical.

Shortly after I started, I got an email from our local grantmaker association asking if I would join a meeting about emerging leadership in philanthropy.  I remember staring at the message with a twisted expression and promptly forwarding the email to my supervisor with a note saying, “I think they meant to send this to you.”

I learned that I could attend, and curiosity brought me to my first meeting. Despite my reservations as to whether I had any intention or ability to lead anything, I joined the local EPIP chapter, became an active member, and have chaired the local chapter for the last two years. My work and experiences as an EPIP member have taught me the importance of honoring leadership in our organizations and communities across various roles.

Today, my perspective about myself and my role in my community has shifted dramatically. I am still at the foundation, now working as a program officer supporting nonprofit organizations across their leadership, management and operational needs. I've had a remarkable amount of support for my own development from within my foundation and specifically from a wonderful mentor and supervisor.

Furthermore, my involvement in philanthropy in general and leadership in particular goes beyond my formal role at work.  Aside from my role as Chair for the Philadelphia Chapter of EPIP, I have been active in the formation and activities of INTERGENERATION, a group learning together to transform leadership across generations, which is co-sponsored by the Philadelphia Foundation and EPIP Philadelphia. I was also recently elected to the board of the Alliance for Nonprofit Management based in large part to the experiences and perspective that I bring as a funder, a capacity builder, my work with EPIP, and my stance on access to opportunities and positive social change.

As I transition out of my leadership role as chair of the local EPIP chapter, I’ve been reflecting on my previously held assumptions about good leadership and how they have shifted over time.  I would like to give back to my EPIP community here by sharing a list of my previously held assumptions about good leadership. Everyone will have his or her own personal style and gifts to bring to their leadership roles, so take what you will from these perspectives and leave the rest

Myth: Leaders make the important decisions.

Reality: Good leaders have the privilege of exercising their good judgment to help put together teams to advise and support good decision-making.  Leaders do make many important decisions and having a team that can navigate important problems and influence direction leads to the best decisions.  (Beware whenever you hear a leader pontificate about their singular vision and decision-making that was a major catalyst for change.)

Myth: Exceptional leadership will be elevated and revered.

Reality:  I believe that most of our best leaders are out of the limelight. Some of the best leaders are not at the top of their organizational chart. They are unknown to the Harvard Business Review and that’s OK with them.

Myth: It is important for leaders to lead with logic; to hide emotion and steer away from emotional conversations.

Reality: It is true that leader’s mood and behavior drives the moods and behaviors of everyone else. Whether or not we like it, we bring our whole selves everywhere we go. Our mood, emotion and perspective inform the way we see one another and our work. Leaders with high emotional intelligence are able to navigate and make the best of this reality – and to be open to their own vulnerabilities and those of staff. These leaders create climates in which sharing, trust and learning flourish. Leaders with less emotional intelligence tend to create climates of fear and anxiety. Because tense or terrified employees can be productive in the short term, this is often misinterpreted as good leadership – but those teams rarely last. Turnover in these organizations is very high.

Myth: Good leaders are always in control.

Reality: Control is a myth and good leaders know that. Good leaders do not need to be in control. They delegate tasks, are open to risk, accept failures as learning opportunities and a necessary part of development. Allowing one’s staff to try something new and to possibility make mistakes is the hallmark of organizational stewardship and good mentorship.

Myth: Good leaders are prepared for anything.

Reality: People can be promoted into leadership roles for being willing to handle all kinds of madness. Regardless of how much one is capable of enduring; it is how one deals with stressful situations that determine whether they are good leaders, not just their stamina. Good leaders are willing to accept that they can’t be prepared for everything and they typically have the requisite self-awareness to know that when things get really crazy, a capable and supportive staff will also be there to deal with it. Seven years later, I still love all of my work in philanthropy. I have been around long enough to have the option of taking a self-supported sabbatical to reflect on what I’ve learned. As I transition away from my leadership role with EPIP Philadelphia and another colleague transitions in, I look forward to continuing my journey and learning from the leadership styles of others while supporting and representing EPIP in new ways.  

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