Leadership: 6 Lessons Learned Along My Long and Winding Career Path

Much is being written on leadership transitions these days in the non-profit world in general and especially in the philanthropy and grantmaking world. It is a worthy topic – not simply because of the much-touted wealth transfer, and not simply because of the existence of multiple adult generations for the first time in history, but because it forces serious discussion about the nature of work and the workplace in the sector, and what leadership really means at this time in history.

Since each of us learns from his or her own experiences, I will share some of mine, including a couple of very sobering lessons I learned over the last 45 years. Perhaps these will translate into your own situations as well.

1. Charisma is not the same as leadership.

I learned this one very early in my carer, and it was a painful lesson. It was the late 60’s, I was working part-time as a university chaplain while finishing my studies. My hair was long, my opinions liberated, and my style activist. I didn’t do it purposely, but suddenly I found that I had groupies. Hard to imagine now, but I really did. [Lest you think this was purely my imagination, 30+ years after that time, we happened upon someone at a conference in Nice. When he heard my name, his reaction was an emphatic “you were my guru!”]

I really believed that I was creating something new and good and that all these followers were taking something away that mattered – beyond hanging around with other followers of someone with followers. And even with the advantage of retrospect, I don’t think I was manipulative or particularly ego driven. Rather, I was kind of a new breed, had no mentor, and few models, in a world which was in the midst of radical reinvention. And then…

And then I accepted a wonderful position at Brown. It was the first of its kind, I was recruited energetically, and, besides, my graduate career was concluding and a full-time job like that was hard to turn down. In taking it, I did not break any contracts, implied or written, nor any public commitments to the contrary. But sure enough, within days of the announcement, my flock had suddenly dispersed – disappeared actually. Lesson learned: A cult of personality, even if unintended and benign, is not a sufficient way to build an organization or a community.

2. Being a community builder is insufficient.

…Thus when I went to Brown, I swore to myself that what I would build would not be based on personality but rather on the quality of community. Delegation, empowerment, bottom-up understanding of needs and wants would characterize both my leadership style and the community I wanted to help bring into being. It was easy at Brown – bright and energetic students, world-class faculty, a prestigious university which fostered allegiance and affection, and an era of creativity. It was hard to go wrong, and for the most part I didn’t. At least for most. Until….

…Until I was reviewed for tenure and discovered that there was a pocket of disenchanted students. The tenure reviewers could never quite put their finger on what the complaint was about since I seemed not to be “guilty” of any sin of commission that this group could identify – just that they wanted “something more.” Since the overall review was sufficiently positive, I received tenure and went on to five additional productive years at Brown until I chose a different career path and moved on.

But during that time, as I found myself in a number of elected leadership roles, I came to understand that the small group of critics were right. No, not that I shouldn’t have received tenure but that they did deserve something more. And that something more was leadership. They had no problem with the value of facilitating competing claims on communal time and resources, they didn’t object to the empowerment of faculty and students and staff, and they surely respected that I had fostered a vibrant community. But to them, all of that together did not add up to leadership. Sometimes there really is a need to be vocal, to take positions, to articulate a vision, to be willing to rally the troops. Leadership is about being willing to engage folks to reach beyond the immediately reachable. Leadership is about being a thought leader and not only a good educator. No, these critics were not advocating that a personality driven community is better than an enfranchised one, but… Lesson learned: that the leader needs to know when to lead.

3. Leadership requires trust.

The next stop along the way was more purely executive. There were senior professionals in many locations who reported to me, and they in turn had staff and facilities and boards and programs and budgets for which they were responsible. I will spare the reader the details, but suffice it to say that the institution was at a very low ebb when I assumed leadership – average professional tenure was less than a year and salaries were the lowest among comparable systems throughout the country. You can imagine that the esprit de corp and trust within the organization was at the same low level.

Sadly, the board that hired me did not know any of this – a commentary in itself. When they were made aware of it, they immediately tried to rectify one part of it: raise my salary to be more in line with my peers. When I asked about everyone else’s, their response was – “we’ll get to that.” They meant well, but my response was to turn the increase down.

My decision was neither heroic nor altruistic, but preservation. In a system without trust, which i had committed myself to righting, how could I credibly be the only beneficiary? Had I taken that increase, as deserved and legitimate as it was, I would have lost the trust of those I needed the most. Had I taken the raise, my formal authority would have been unchanged, but my effectiveness would have been severely damaged. Leaders, I came to understand, have to earn and merit their leadership role. [By the way, it took one more year, but within a year, all of the salaries were adjusted to a more appropriate level.] Lesson learned: An ascribed leadership role may give one power, but true leadership, the kind which inspires followers, must be earned.

4. Leaders don’t demand of others what they don’t demand of themselves, and leaders must model what they expect of others.

Unlike many my chronological age but very like most of those a generation or two younger than I, I have had 5 distinct careers in my professional lifetime. All of them emerged organically, following changed priorities, interests, and passions – and in most cases, newly learned expertise. Each was built on what I did before, but would not have been anticipated or planned much before they happened. It is true, though, that I was always wondering and thinking about what was to be next.

As an executive, supervisor, boss – whichever – I assumed that everyone who reported to me, and everyone who reported to those people, was also thinking about their own future. I could foolishly pretend that their loyalty and fealty would be absolute or I could acknowledge their healthy ambitions and impatience. I chose the latter. And I tried to model that commitment: For but one example, I offered to meet with everyone once each year to help update their resumes. Doing so served several purposes: it helped me understand how each professional saw himself or herself at that moment in his or her career, it identified sources of anxiety or dissatisfaction with components of their current job assignments, and it eliminated the all too common secret searching when a professional fears that exploring a new position will incur retribution. There was an unintended positive organizational consequence: I would learn that minor job assignment adjustments could rejuvenate professionals, and often simply switching components of different people’s jobs would satisfy several people at once. Lesson learned: Leadership is hard to sustain without a transparent commitment to allow others to grow and fulfill their own aspirations.

5. Leaders cultivate leadership in others.

Encouraging others to assume authentic leadership roles also serves to enhance succession and legitimate empowerment. For example, when working in the nonprofit sector, I believed strongly that I had an obligation to serve on boards of other nonprofits. It made me a better professional and executive, and, one hopes, it added depth to my board service for those organizations. For many in our sector, I knew, this view was not the norm. It was not uncommon to hear from colleagues on the nonprofit side of the table that they viewed that their work itself was their communal service – they need not contribute time or money since their work is their contribution. After all, they argued, their salaries are lower, their support systems more fragile, and their work hours as extensive as the private sector.

I felt quite differently [and I am pleased to say that my view is not unique]: Those whose livelihood is dependent on the voluntary sector should themselves model a commitment to that sector. I welcomed invitations to serve.

Therefore you are not surprised that I also encouraged those who reported to me to do the same. [I could not mandate this, nor could I hold it against someone who chose not to, but I could encourage.] Colleagues were always glad that they did this. It allowed them to use their inside knowledge of what it means to work in the sector, it gave them perspectives on the kinds of decisions board members should or must make, and allowed them to be seen as leaders. I don’t recall any ever complaining that it was a waste of their time.

Similarly, it is crucial that professionals be trusted with real decision-making. Delegation must be real. We all have met executives who posit that they delegate and want their “reports” to exercise autonomy, only to overrule those who are “under” them. No one is fooled – why take risks or bother to make decisions if they are undercut? It renders their own supervision vacuous. My view is a different one: Unless there was real and palpable institutional damage by a decision, I supported decentralized decisions – even if those decisions might have differed from my own had I been in their seat. How else does one learn leadership? How else does one leverage the best energies in a large and sprawling system? How else does one cultivate one’s successor? [I was once privy to this conversation: The chair of the board of a large multifaceted nonprofit asked the ceo of that organization who was his #2; “who can take over for you?” His answer – “Really no one.” The Chair responded, “then you aren’t doing your job.”] Lesson learned: True leadership must cultivate the future leaders of the entity one heads.

6. Leadership requires courage.

I learned this final lesson much too late, after I stopped being employed by others. My current leadership roles are strictly in the volunteer realm since I have been mostly self-employed for the last 10 years. At this time, one of my professional competencies, and a significant source of my income is public speaking [something I do much better than I did earlier in my career – a story for another time]. Much to my surprise, and chagrin, many people who have known me for a long time have commented that they never knew I felt so strongly and have such explicit opinions about many of the things I speak about. For me, these are not new opinions. And I surely never realized that they were hidden. I suddenly discovered how much I must have been self-censoring all those years. Without intending to do so, in being sensitive to the organizations or institutions I worked for or with, I must have over-neutralized my own public views.

Now, to be sure, it is the responsible thing to not overdo the power of the podium, and to be aware of the impact of one’s words. But representation is not the same as leadership. Leadership requires risk, leadership requires opinions, leadership demands that some opinions may be unpopular, leadership means a willingness to advocate change, leadership requires courage. While I can point to times in my career when I did indeed exercise courage, they had largely been contained and on a small stage. Yet over the years, I have had many options on bigger stages and I didn’t know, or didn’t have the courage, to take advantage to push newer thinking, change views, move the spirit, and really lead. My regret: that it took me so long to recognize and accept this indispensable attribute of leadership. Lesson learned: True leadership requires risk, courage, and opportunity – and it is never too late.

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.