“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.


It’s Leadership, Stupid

Great leaders are everywhere — in corporations, nonprofits and even in athletics. Recently I observed leadership in a group of runners taking cues from their trailblazer. She was shepherding the group forward, motivating them the entire way, because that’s what a leader does.

We want the same to be true with 501(c)(3) leaders. Staff and volunteers should be inspired by them, collaborators should enjoy working with them and they must resonate with donors. Once I worked with a small cultural organization where we tested this concept.

We were producing a brand new artistic performance, which was unquestionably the spotlight program of the year. It required some inventive fundraising, so our chief development officer (CDO) outlined a solid strategy. Through rigorous efforts, this led to cultivation of one particularly generous donor (let’s call this person “Major Donor”) whose support totaled 50% of our revenue goals. Huzzah!

The CDO departed soon after, and following some development staff restructuring, the executive director (ED) made the questionable choice to take on the lion’s share of fundraising. When the performances finally arrived, the ED’s behavior — disinterest in understanding basic performance etiquette, lack of presence and uninformed communication with Major Donor — led to unfortunate missed stewardship opportunities. After much damage control, Major Donor was pleased, and saw their philanthropy bring the performance to life. (Note: Performances continue to this day, supported still by Major Donor.)

This was an arts experience, though key takeaways can apply to all organizations contemplating or evaluating leadership:

  • Find leadership with a love for the mission. There are certain skills that can be learned, though passion is not one of them. If a savvy leader is truly interested in committing to an organization, their commitment is more likely to permeate beliefs and behaviors.
  • Reality-based understanding of what an organization does and how it happens goes a long way. Engagement stems from mission delivery, and a mission is carried out through programs, special events and other endeavors. Constituents get involved in personally meaningful ways, and leaders will serve best if they take the time to match their interests with an institution’s real abilities.
  • For those who have found their mission-driven, pragmatic leaders, proper staffing is really important. This doesn’t always translate to the ED or CDO being on hand at all times. It means that during those times of mission delivery — performance, 5k run/walk, clothing drive — the right leadership is present, valuing the mission and managing stakeholder expectations in real time.

George Harrison mused “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” Organizations often know their destination — balanced budgets, thriving programming, engaged staff, happy constituents — and intelligible, bold leaders can absolutely shepherd the journey.