A Short Menu for Leadership Sanity

One of our most recognizable nonprofit leaders recently told me that he was “fed up’ and that the changing nonprofit landscape was leading him to “insanity”.   Later that day I began to ponder his dilemma and I decided to ask a group of other successful nonprofit CEOs how they keep themselves sane.  The result –this short “five item menu” for leadership sanity:

1)  Share the work of setting direction –The CEOs said that they discovered that it was the burden of carrying “direction setting” on their own shoulders that weighed them down.  Regular staff and board “strategic discussion” helps relieve the pressure.

2)  Identify and feed the renegades – Nonprofit leaders find they need to support those employees who have a keen sense of the evolving community needs – those with their ears to the ground.  They are supporting those whose emotional energy is invested in the future and who are willing to gently let go of the past.

3)  Release the notion of “heroic” leadership – No longer riding in on the white horse to save the day, successful nonprofit leaders are focusing on creating collaborative systems and making space for innovation.

4)  Nurture employee autonomy – New ideas and new approaches need to be “seeded” at all levels.  Successful leaders are creating mechanisms to encourage grassroots experimentation and reward thoughtful ideas and new approaches to service.

5) Foster increased commitment to organization values – Our new world requires us to wrestle with the “discipline versus freedom” model of supervision.  Successful leaders spend more time securing commitment to core organizational values that are at the heart of the work we do in our communities and with our clients.

What are you doing to keep yourself sane?  Leave a comment and let me know!


  • sarahdurham
    Posted April 12, 2011 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Don, your post reminds me of some of the valuable lessons in Jim Collins’ book “Good to Great” about effective leadership, too: in particular, the importance of ‘getting the right people on the bus’, and how some of the best leaders lead quietly.

  • Posted April 14, 2011 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    Here is a comment from one nonpofit leader on how she stays sane:

    “Don, Loved your piece in the newsletter. To keep myself sane – especially in my previous role as CEO of Gilda’s Club Northern NJ – I try to network with peers as much as possible. Not only can I learn how to deal with some issues from someone who has been through it, knowing you’re not alone in the issues you face came be extremely comforting. I also run – exercising as we know is a good stress reliever, but I find running to be an activity that requires so little thought that as my mind goes off in its own direction, it produces a lot of solutions.

    I should also mention I’m enjoying the Trajectory Leadership Group!”

    -Mary G. Connolly, Director, Development and Communications
    Episcopal Social Services

  • Posted May 2, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Here is an e-mail we received from Ruth S. Taylor, Executive Director of Newport Historical Society. Thanks for your message Ruth!

    My daughter, who is an arts administrator in New York, sent me an email containing your five-item sanity menu.

    I of course agree with all five. But! I am concerned about the message that we send to emerging professionals that if they only remember the five things, the seven things, the one hundred tips for good management… then they can succeed in the tumultuous and often poorly-structured arena of non-profit management. The message from successful managers often seems to me to read as “well, if you can just be superman, everything will work out.” Isn’t there something wrong with that message?”

    Ruth St. Taylor, Executive Director
    Newport Historical Society

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