Years ago, I spoke on a panel at Fundraising Day in New York on how to effectively lead a non-profit organization. At the time, I was Executive Director of City Harvest, one of New York City’s best-known charities – because of my leadership and the team I assembled.
I organized my talk around several words that begin with the letter “P” – especially passion, planning, purpose, participation, patience, persistence, and practical.
Passion: To inspire others to support the organization’s mission, a leader musPt be passionate about that mission. And a leader must express that passion in words and action – speaking about the organization’s work in ways others understand at a gut level, and doing whatever is needed to advance that mission. Passionate leaders are on the front lines, stepping in to do things without regard for status or formal role.
Planning: This is how a great leader harnesses that passion and gets everyone on the same team, moving together in the same direction toward a common goal. Big plans, small plans, short plans, long plans – what they have in common is careful consideration of needs, resources, actions, consequences, and impact. Where are we now? Where do we want to be? When? How will we get there? What do we need to make it happen – resources, information, communication, alignment?
Purpose: All great leaders need a big “why” to motivate themselves and others, to inspire that passion, to organize a plan around, and to give meaning to actions. A great leader asks “why am I here, in this role, in this organization? What is my purpose?” The purpose is the fulcrum for aligning every part of the organization, and is the basis for all accountability.
Participation: By definition, leaders need followers. In my experience, followers are willing to stay behind a leader that welcomes, facilitates, demands, and rewards their participation in a wide range of organizational activities and processes. Organizations are by definition group endeavors. Participation transforms groups into teams, enables the expression of passion, facilitates the emotional engagement that prompts “above and beyond” performance, and constitutes organizational glue. Strong, confident leaders understand that by enabling full and planned participation, they share ownership of the organization with all its members and thus help ensure the organization’s longevity and sturdiness.
Patience: Most leaders are really intelligent, capable people who got their positions because they did a lot of things really well. Being a leader means not actually doing very much, however. It means letting go of the “doing” and turning it over to others who will absolutely, positively do things differently than the leader. A great leader understands that “different” can and often is equal to or better than their own effort. A great leader also understands that a group enterprise is naturally going to move more slowly than a single person. That’s just the way it is. Wishing things to move more quickly is a path to disappointment. Patience with the process of moving toward a goal is, on the other hand, the ingredient for a happy, productive leader and organization. People know when the leader is impatient, and it is demoralizing. Great leaders convey that they are confident in their team’s commitment and ability to achieve the goals within the mutually-agreed on time frame, and that together they will deal with and dispose of obstacles. Impatience is not an option.
Persistence: Great leaders keep searching for the best solutions, the most impact, the clearest goal. They consistently monitor progress toward goals, are constantly aware of resource availability and need, regularly check in with team members and stakeholders, and routinely adjust elements of the plan depending on current and expected conditions. Persistence does not mean sticking with something to the bitter end. It does mean keeping your eye on the mission and continually working to achieve that mission.
Practical: This is the opposite of perfection, which can by definition never be achieved. We can do excellent work and have deep impact, though. A great leader is practical about what can be achieved, given resources, timing, external context, and all the other factors affecting an organization. Let’s go for as much as we can, stretching enough to inspire others to get on board while not setting ourselves up for failure or disappointment by being ambitious beyond what is practically possible.
Probably I mentioned some other P words – I have huge list of them, and will blog about other ones in the future. Of them all, passion was and still is the most important one. I urged people to find and tap into their passion for fighting hunger, for helping others meet this most fundamental of needs. Our passion can ignite the passion of others, enlist them in this battle, and bring us closer to ending hunger – the unnecessary problem in a world capable of producing more than enough food for everyone and then some. My message was about expansion, abundance, making a huge impact – with passion as the fuel.
The audience responded enthusiastically to my talk, confirming my conviction in the centrality of passion as a motivational tool. I was then astounded when another panelist disputing the importance of passion; she claimed it was possible to develop and maintain a well-run organization without being passionate about your work.
She’s technically correct, and that’s the kind of organization she has built: well-run. It’s not an organization with heart, however, that inspires loyalty and attachment. City Harvest was a place people wanted to work, both because it was well-run and more important, it allowed people to express their passion and creativity.
Here’s an analogy: Microsoft produces very useful, necessary and generally competent products, whereas Apple produces elegance and devotion along with usability. Microsoft wins a lot of the market through its methods, but there’s no soul in its products. If there is any passion at Microsoft, it’s for winning rather than for excellence and responding to human needs for beauty, imagination, excellence.
I see evidence of this in how consumers and media respond to each company’s products. When Microsoft launches a new product, it seems that people first look for things to criticize and only grudgingly acknowledge a product’s good features. Look at the beating Vista received – deservedly so, given all the glitches in that platform. When Apple releases a new product, it receives encomiums, praise, and even awe. Any problems that may exist – and usually there are very few, if any – are mentioned and waved away as of little consequence in comparison to the product’s myriad virtues.
Parenthetically, I suppose a fair question is whether it’s possible to have excellence and elegance only in a niche market, such as Apple occupies. Perhaps the dominant product or platform is bound to fall short of expectations because of its very ubiquity; it is designed for the most common denominator and a huge audience. The sheer number of users ensures a broader pool of critics. And the vast diversity of needs cannot be met by such a broadly-conceived and designed product; Microsoft products are bound to disappoint aa wide range of specific expectations.
Back to the P’s. I’ve watched the other panelist over the years find and express some passion for her organization’s mission. As she has done so, her organization has attracted and retained talented staff, more funding and media coverage, and high-profile/celebrity supporters. It used to be that she was envious of City Harvest. I like to think that she used my deconstruction of how I transformed City Harvest from a good idea into a nationally-known, celebrity-endorsed, fun, cutting-edge, and extremely effective organization. Who knows? I do know that a little passion never hurt, and I have seen how a leader’s passion awakens and reinvigorates moribund groups. For issues like ending hunger, we can never have too much passion.