We Don’t Need Thought Leaders Right Now

It was just canceled, but last week the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo — the largest in the world, and a 501(c)(3) — was in full swing. For the uninitiated, it’s a giant, three-week party in Houston attended by 2.5 million people, with concerts, tons of great food, rides and learning opportunities. It’s exceptionally fun, and they do an exceptional amount of good, having provided more than half-a-billion dollars in support of youth and education since 1932.

One of the most entertaining (okay, cutest) things at Rodeo is called mutton busting, which is, essentially, an adorable activity of little kids trying to ride baby sheep as long as they can. Usually only one or two kids “win,” and they put those kids up on giant screens in front of tens of thousands of people and ask them all sorts of questions. Last week, one such winner was asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

I want to be kind.” Kids say the darnedest things, though sometimes they say the rightest things.

In the week since, the world has sort of exploded (imploded?) and I believe that’s absolutely the thing we need to hear right now. Too many people, especially in our nonprofit orbit, are stepping into the self-anointed role of thought-leader. Especially all those non-doctors offering all sorts of coronavirus medical advice.

NOTHANKSTo be fair, things are absolutely nuts right now. Here in Texas, cancelations of the Rodeo and South by Southwest will result in prospective hits to the Houston and Austin economies of hundreds of millions. And while no nonprofit consultant has yet done the math (to my knowledge), the blow to our sector will be equally devastating.

Winston Churchill reminded us to never waste a good crisis, and I see all y’all out there putting on your thought-leader pants, trying to make some magic happen. You’re finding every news story and YouTube video on how to turn this disaster into an opportunity, and you’re blasting it out there so all the world knows of your thought-leader prowess. And I get it. Many of us were having glacial fundraising years before COVID-19, and today the market saw its worst drop since 1987. You don’t need to look hard to know this next decade will be a philanthropic slug.

The thing is, we don’t need more thought-leaders right now. We need more kindness-doers. We need reminding from our young mutton buster to be kind when we grow up. Wait a minute, we are grown up. That means we can do it right now! We can talk with our teams about flexibility in their schedules. We can Clorox the office kitchen and let people know (without boasting about it) so they feel more comfortable. We can call our donors and stakeholders to simply say hello and wish them well. My gosh there are 1,001 things you could do right now.

So why are you still here? Go on, ‘git. Put down your nightmare pocket rectangle and vamoose — while washing your hands and avoiding crowds, obviously. And if you figure out the secret kindness sauce, share it with your friends, your colleagues and the world. We need a whole lot more of that right now.


“Bad Leaders” Don’t Exist

I’m on a mission to re-frame the way we think about nonprofit leadership. I’ve been listening for years to people talk about their experiences with “bad leaders,” and it has left me with the following conclusion: if leadership is supposed to be a good practice, why do we so loosely throw around the title with regard to bad practitioners?

Who’s had horrible managers? Can I get a show of hands? Folks, those people are not “bad leaders.” At best, they’re crappy bosses. There’s a much larger issue at hand when those crappy bosses keep on keepin’ on, though that doesn’t make them any less crappy.


In any case, this rant is all about analogies which compare crappy bosses to drivers, and their use of turn signals… or lack thereof. So bear with me while I present to you four different fictitious lackluster nonprofit bosses.

  • No Signal, No Action: For the sake of this analogy, let’s call this person “Bob.” Bob is nice enough, but as the months and years go by, you realize not only does Bob have no plans, he doesn’t actually do very much. Bob never uses a turn signal, because he never goes anywhere. Bob would be better suited as a popcorn vendor at a movie theater.
  • No Signal, Action: Let’s call this person “Donna.” Oh Donna… Donna has a sordid past. She’s “resigned” from several jobs under questionable circumstances, yet nonprofits keep hiring her for “leadership positions.” Donna never signals where she’s going, but she turns all the time, leaving people totally confused and aggravated. Donna should win the lottery and stay home.
  • Signal, No Action: Here we have “Phil.” In every staff meeting, Phil tells the team about his plans — and might even lay out steps for the plans — but three or six months down the road, Phil hasn’t done or managed any progress on the plan. Phil uses his turn signal, but never actually turns; he just drives straight for miles and miles, leaving his blinker on, frustrating the entirety of the driving citizenry. Phil should be a professional Yelp reviewer.
  • Signal, Different Action: This is “Clark.” For some reason — probably because he has been at the organization over 20 years — Clark pretty much does whatever he wants. He takes lots of action, though much of it is different than what he says he’ll do. When Clark uses his left turn signal, he turns right, but not before cutting someone off. He should go into consulting, where no one will hire him.

All that considered, it behooves me to mention one contrarian perspective: Signal, Action. This person is “John,” and in this analogy, John is the good egg. John follows the rules of the road, and knows where he’s going and why. When John signals right, he turns right. Everyone around him appreciates it, and those who travel with him enjoy the ride. John acts like a leader, and we should all aspire to be like John.

At the end of the day, many of us don’t have a John. And as an industry, we need to be better about shaping all the bad drivers out there into Johns. But rest assured, there is life after Bob… And Donna… And Phil… And Clark…


The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Colleague

At some point in my career I became painfully aware of a phenomenon called the Dunning–Kruger Effect. Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger coined the phrase in their 1999 paper, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.” Essentially, they posit, sufferers are ignorant of their own ignorance. Now, who hasn’t worked with someone like this?

You know the type. When they walk down the hall, colleagues run the other way; they burn through staff at rapid pace; they’re quick to throw anyone under the bus — and they do it all with great gusto. Maybe it’s just my luck, though I’ve had several managers like this throughout my career. After a while I began theorizing why, and this was my hypothesis: Some people find themselves in leadership positions because of particular skills, not necessarily because they are fit to lead.

An example might be the artist who ascends to the position of executive director because of their creative savvy, while lacking budgetary or philanthropic competencies. Or the development staffer who raises a ton of money and climbs to #1, without understanding the nuances of human resources.

Leadership is a sticking point for me (see here), and that Dunning-Kruger Effect is all over nonprofits, often in top positions. And while I’ve experienced my share of those who act heinously because of it, I’ve also seen people who admit they don’t know what they don’t know, and learn from it. I LOVE working with people like that, and I bet in turn they find me to be a pretty happy colleague.

Many days, I realize there’s a lot I don’t know, especially the older I get. On most of those days, I pridefully learn something new. I don’t have nearly all the answers, and it would be dangerous not only to presume I do, but to act on it. [Note: Here’s a handy visualization of this reality]

img_4920-1I don’t work for a Dunning-Kruger sufferer now, and I hope never to again. I know they’re out there, though, so if you come across one, feel free to print out this post and leave it on their desk — it’s likely they have a lot of work enemies, so they probably won’t know it was you anyway.