The Future of Nonprofit Leadership: Worker Self-directed Organizations

by Simon Mont, Nonprofit Quarterly

The dominant organizational structure of nonprofits is unsustainable. Nonprofit leaders are leaving the sector. In 2008, a national study, “Ready to Lead?”, produced by CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Meyer Foundation, and, found that three out of four executive directors planned to leave their positions within three years. The major reasons they cited were lack of adequate compensation, burnout, overwhelming fundraising responsibilities, and a fear that they would not be able to retire properly.
The struggle to find replacement executive directors is just one symptom of a problem that is holding the sector back from achieving its full potential. We have built our organizations around an idea that our leadership should come from either a single individual or a small group. This leads to the consolidation of responsibility and power in the people who occupy those positions and the creation of positions within organizations that demand long hours, compromised personal lives, and distance from personally fulfilling client and program work in order focus on administration.
This myopic view of leadership also makes it hard to see the leadership qualities exhibited on a daily basis by people in all positions within our organizations. Instead of harnessing everyone’s ability to lead, envision, and create, we are asking most of us to follow the few of us who assume a great burden.
But there are solutions! Not only do we have new organizational frameworks that resolve tensions and enhance capacities, we also have living examples of those frameworks in practice. The key to this new organizational framework is mutual empowerment and peer accountability. With mutual empowerment, we all create space for each other to discover and pursue opportunities that synergize to achieve the outcomes of the organization. With peer accountability, we build intentional relationships to ensure that our activities are aligned and we are all fulfilling our commitments.
The solution is not to replace structure with structurelessness. It is to replace the inefficient structure of hierarchy, with the dynamic structure of peer co-creation.

Understanding Leadership

When asked about the nonprofit leadership shortage, one next-generation leader responded, “Where is this supposed lack of leadership? We’re all here. And we’re ready. We’re ready to take over when you’re ready to retire. I wonder if it’s more of a disconnect between generations and a difference in leadership styles than a lack of leadership.”
The difference in leadership styles can be understood in terms of “individual-centered leadership” and “collective leadership.” The dominant model of leadership is individual-centered. It imagines leaders to be identifiable individual people with particular sets of personal skills and traits. In an organizational context, it imagines leaders to be individuals with formal positions atop hierarchies, whose direction people follow. This model makes leadership scarce because there can only be as many leaders as there are formal roles. Those who want room to enact their visions must compete within a bureaucracy to gain a position of power from which they can act. The creative potential of “followers” is either left unused or spent figuring out how to climb high enough to express itself.
This is a narrow understanding of what leadership really is. Leadership is the practice of maximizing the use of one’s individual talents and the potential of a team to develop and execute a vision. It is the practice of seeing the relationship of the individual to the group, and creating spaces where individual actions combine to achieve collective vision.
Everyone is capable of this kind of leadership. Committed staff at nonprofit organizations are already doing it simply by contributing to their teams. Our organizational models ignore people’s ability to contribute and instead prescribe a very defined role for them. Shared leadership happens when we maximize everyone’s ability to step into, at the right times, the leadership they are most suited for while coordinating our activity to achieve an impact larger than the sum of its parts.
When we expect a single leader (or small group of “leaders”) to create a system that will define and coordinate all individuals’ relationship to the organization by assigning roles and titles, we ignore the potential of every member to decide for themselves how to use the personal and interpersonal resources at their disposal to support the organization. We inhibit the dynamic, innovative, and agile responses that empowered people are capable of and choose static control and repetition instead.

Solving the Nonprofit “Leadership Crises”

The “Ready to Lead?” study shows us that very few people want the roles that the individual-centered leadership model provides. Respondents indicated that the role is unsustainable, unfulfilling, and they do not feel it is the best way to accomplish their personal or organizational goals. If this problem is not addressed, then the talented, creative, value-centered people on whom the nonprofit sector relies will look elsewhere for employment.
The report’s first recommendation was to…READ MORE