Play Makers

When I played sports in high school, I was a catcher in softball and a setter in volleyball. I was rarely the one who made the highlight reels, which was just fine with me . . . I got to be the “playmaker”, helping set the stage for the win. I loved “surveying the landscape” and thinking about what player needed to be where, when. Little did I know that those same skills would serve me well as the leader of a nonprofit organization.

Leadership, and the presumed power that comes with it, look at bit different if you are leading a nonprofit. As demonstrated in a national research study I recently conducted on “Aspects of Strategic Leadership Unique to Nonprofit Organizations”, five clear areas emerged as being unique to leading a nonprofit organization. This week, I would like to highlight the second unique characteristic: the diffused, influence-based power structure needed to respond to multiple stakeholders 

In a typical for-profit organizational chart, the leader usually sits at the top of the pyramid. By contrast, leadership in a nonprofit is more accurately characterized by being located at the center of a wheel, with various stakeholders spoking out in different directions, and all of which need to work in concert for the organization to make forward progress. I have yet to meet a nonprofit leader who can rule by edict. Sure, we can set direction, we can persuade, and encourage people to get on board, but there is actually very little that we get to independently “decide.” The need to respond to board members, staff, service recipients, a myriad of funders, regulators and oversite bodies, donors, and community stakeholders (feel free to add to the list) creates a complex and diffused “power map.” As such, we don’t have the concentrated decision-making ability that many for-profit CEOs have. That means it often takes longer to make decisions and get projects off the ground – it is not that nonprofit leaders are indecisive (which we are at times characterized as), rather it is the need to get so many players on board if a project is to be effective.

According to Jim Collins, in his monograph Good to Great for the Social Sectors, nonprofit leaders must exert legislative leadership, rather than executive leadership, which requires more “persuasion, political currency and shared interests to create the conditions for the right decisions to happen.” This fits with Collin’s definition of a Level 5 leader who shows personal humility and professional will, which he identifies as a key factor in creating legitimacy and influence.

Just like sports, being a nonprofit playmaker requires numerous calculated moves, and adjustments midstream based on the moves of others. Often unpredictable, and definitely worth the effort. 

What about you? How have you served as a playmaker for the nonprofit organization you lead, or supported a nonprofit leader of an organization in your community? It takes all of us to keep the wheel of our missions moving forward.  

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