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On Leadership

Your early years as a development professional may have been similar to mine. Or maybe it was by virtue of working in large organizations. An unambiguous message was consistently delivered in all my training, supervision and mentoring: my role was to support, to take a back seat, to be the good soldier, to produce a respectable increase in funds from year to year. Then, as I was given supervisory responsibility, I was expected to manage within the system and administrate according to established protocols.

Never was any expectation of a leadership role expressed to me. In my last position as vice president for development the realization slowly came upon me that my primary responsibility was leadership. That realization had to overcome considerable obstacles and misgivings on my part. After all, it is unlikely that anyone would describe me as charismatic. I did not wield much authority in the organization. The role of leadership properly belonged to the CEO and the board of directors.

Once I cleared that first and most important hurdle of seeing myself as a leader, I still had to learn how to become a leader and to apply those skills. Fortunately, a good deal of research has been conducted and much has been written. What I have learned is that successful development professionals are inspired leaders. Development is a fertile field for the practice of leadership; our organizations and donors yearn for leadership.

What is leadership?

The root word of leadership is lead which means to go, travel or guide. All three words indicate a journeying.

Public servant John Gardner in On Leadership defines leadership as "the process of persuasion or example by which an individual...induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers." In their book The Leadership Challenge James Kouzes and Barry Posner define it as "the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations."

Both these definitions provide clear delineations. The leader foremost is active; he or she is causing others to act; the focus is a desired future state; and the goal is shared by all. It sounds like a job description for a development director.

Characteristics of leadership

A study in 1987 and again in 1995 by Kouzes and Posner revealed that people look for four characteristics above all others in selecting leaders. It is important to us all that our leaders are: honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent. Again, those are facets which apply equally well to development professionals. Above all, we must be viewed as having unimpeachable integrity. It almost goes without saying that people expect us to be competent. And, we are required to be forward-looking as we are continually raising funds to improve current conditions or to create something which does not now exist. Inspiring — ah, there is the rub!

Inspiring others conjures up that word charisma. We have imbued the word with mystical powers. Actually, Its origin has mystical overtones. St. Paul used it to describe gifts or powers of the Holy Spirit that are manifestations of God’s grace. German sociologist Max Weber secularized the term in his study of leadership. Today it is part of our common parlance. Webster’s defines it as "a special quality of leadership that captures the popular imagination and inspires unswerving allegiance and devotion." Rather heady stuff!

Chances are you would describe few people as charismatic. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Billy Graham or Pope John Paul II might come to mind. We are reluctant to place ourselves in such company.

What does it mean to inspire others? It really is not so intimidating. Kouzes and Posner found that "we expect our leaders to be enthusiastic, energetic, and positive about the future....a bit of a cheerleader." It is certainly within our ability to project such an image. One of the salient qualities of development professionals is deep commitment to our organizations’ missions and goals.

What makes a good leader?

Leadership is a learned, not innate ability according to Fred Manske in Secrets of Effective Leadership. That is encouraging for development professionals as we are inclined to be naturally curious and to be lifelong learners.

Kouzes and Posner have also concluded through their research that leadership is an understandable and a universal process. They have identified several practices that can be directly applied to development.

1. Challenge the process
We should seek opportunities within our operations to improve relationships to donors, to look for ways to meet new or increasing demands, and to develop innovative approaches. We need to be bold, to experiment with tried-and-true methods, and to learn from results.

2. Inspire a shared vision
We should enlist our boards of directors in regular reviews of our missions and in envisioning the future of our organizations. We need to be enthusiastic in sharing our vision with our donors and in listening to find common values and interests that can unite us in our dreams for a brighter future.

3. Enable others to act
We should carefully assess the abilities and influence of our board members and other volunteers, and develop strategies that will utilize their strengths. We need to coach them, to help them understand how to develop donor relationships, and to encourage them to act with our full support.

4. Model the way
We should demonstrate our commitment to our organizations through our words and actions in a variety of ways. We need to be major donors first before we ask others. We need to be innovative in cultivating donors and to be genuine in keeping the needs of our donors foremost. We need to be positive and energetic in promoting our organizations. We need to keep focused on our goals. We need to be ethical and trustworthy in all our relationships.

5. Encourage the heart
We should provide our donors opportunities to experience the real joy of giving and show them appreciation in ways that touch their hearts. We need to connect their dreams and hopes with those of the people we seek to serve. We need to celebrate as a community our accomplishments and successes.

What do you want?

Scholar Warren Bennis writes in On Becoming a Leader that the essence of leadership is full, free self-expression. "The key to full self-expression is understanding one’s self and the world, and the key to understanding is learning — from one’s own life and experience....The process of becoming a leader is much the same as the process of becoming an integrated human being....At bottom, becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself."

Reflecting on his conclusion it occurs to me that development, the process of securing financial support for our mission and vision, is akin to self-development. As development professionals we are successful insofar as we develop meaningful relationships with donors and connect them to our mission. In those relationships, ideally, we are expressing and sharing ourselves fully and we are taking in these other persons — listening to and learning from them.

Gardner offers us a hint of what is within our grasp in these relationships. "The most gifted leaders understand that the needs of people cannot be fully plumbed by asking them what they want or why they want it. One of the deepest truths about the cry of the human heart is that it is so often muted, so often a cry that is never uttered. To be sure, there are needs and feelings that we express quite openly; lying deeper are emotions we share only with loved ones, and deeper still the things we tell no one. We die with much unsaid. It is strange that members of a species renowned for communicative gifts should leave unexpressed some of their deepest yearnings, their smoldering resentments, their worries and secret hopes, their longings to serve a higher purpose."

That is what the development profession offers us — the opportunity to be ourselves and to be in relationship with others in service to a higher purpose. It requires us to assume leadership; it demands that we develop our potential. As Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote, "The ideal is in thyself; the impediment, too, is in thyself."

Suggested readings:

Bennis, W. and Nanus, B., Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge, Harper and Row Publishers, New York, 1985.

Bennis, W., On Becoming a Leader, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, New York, 1989.

Gardner, J., On Leadership, The Free Press, New York, 1990.

Greenleaf, R., Servant Leadership, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ, 1979.

Kouzes, J. and Posner, B., The Leadership Challenge: How To Keep Getting Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1995.

Maxwell, J., Developing the Leader Within You, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1993.

Michael R. Maude, ACFRE, FAHP
Partners In Philanthropy

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