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Become a Better Leader

Effective leaders act.  Sometimes it is necessary for thought to precede action; other times it is important for actions to precede thought.  In both cases, everyone around the leader must provide support so that the leader will have the courage to act.

Typical leadership training encourages leaders to think differently.  If a new leader realizes he or she needs to be a better coach, the first step is to ask what a good coach would do and follow that with whatever actions he or she can.  If the leader holds that vision of a good coach in mind, he or she will learn which actions produce the desired results.  Thinking first then taking action usually produces the best results.

The harder part of becoming a leader is taking action before one knows what the action looks like.  For instance, consider the challenge a leader faces when he or she becomes aware that a donor cultivation strategy is needed.  Without experience and a mental vision, it is impossible for thought to precede action.

In this case, action before thought is critical.  Doing nothing until a thought arrives means that nothing will happen and fundraising will be unable to evolve to meet the future needs.  However, taking action will teach the leader and the team valuable lessons.

Carrying the example a little further, when the team analyzes the results of its actions, it will be able to formulate a strategy (strategy: a description of the action or actions that will produce the desired result).

Let us assume the desired result is to have donors who are loyal and generous.  The team will learn that if you twist a donor’s arm, you receive money immediately but never hear from the donor again and the donor has nothing good to say about the nonprofit.  Clearly, arm-twisting should be left out of the strategy.  However, if you engage the donor’s emotions with carefully chosen stories supported by statistical evidence of frequent success, the donor will give year after year and each year increase the size of the gift.  Now a critical element in of the donor cultivation strategy has been discovered.

Looking over the lessons learned, it becomes easy for the leader to determine that the donor cultivation strategy should be to ‘win the hearts and minds of the donors’.  Now everyone has a clearer idea of how to be an effective donor cultivator.

Through taking action, the leader has learned to think strategically.  Now the leader has a model for learning.  In addition, the leader has a model for strategic thinking and analysis.  Next time the leader will be able to do more thinking and reduce the number of trial-and-error activities.

It addition, everyone has a standard for guiding their actions.  Before taking action, they can ask themselves if the action will win the hearts and minds of the donors.  After taking the action, they can reflect on whether they were successful and determine how to be more effective in the future.  An additional benefit of having a strategy is that the leaders spend less time managing, which means they have more time to lead.

Next Step:

Encourage all of the leaders at your nonprofit to take action

Create a culture that allows leaders to learn through experimentation

Use what you learn from every action to refine your strategies

Share the learnings (good and bad) with the other leaders

Articulate your strategies so that everyone knows what actions to take

The purpose of a strategy is to make it easier to achieve the desired result.  The strategy helps everyone determine which actions are going to be more effective.  Strategizing is also a great way to engage in knowledge transfer.  It teaches people what to think about and how best to achieve the desired result.

A strategy must constantly evolve.  The world is constantly changing and what worked yesterday will soon stop working.  Therefore, the sustainability of your nonprofit depends on analyzing the result of every action and periodically updating your strategies to ensure they remain effective.

Take It Further:

Encourage your board development committee to give priority to board candidates with leadership (different from management) and strategic thinking experience

Train everyone (leaders and individual contributors) to think strategically (it is impossible to have too many strategist)

Share your strategies with all of your stakeholders (it will help to focus their support and increase their effectiveness)

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