Inside Philanthropy

A blog on philanthropy and nonprofit news and issues. A publication of Philanthropy Journal.

November 7, 2011

Filling charities’ leadership gap


By Todd Cohen

The charitable marketplace is thin on leadership, and needs a quick infusion.

Smart, effective and passionate managers are helping many nonprofits and philanthropies stay afloat in an economy and society hurtling toward chaos.

But the spark that distinguishes leaders from managers is in short supply.

Leadership is a widely touted concept, and everyone seems to have a different take on what it means and who has it.

Amazon, for example, lists over 72,500 “leadership books,” many of them written by retired sports coaches, retired military leaders, and self-anointed leadership gurus.

But the proof of leadership lies not in theory or feel-good prescriptions but in the results that leaders produce.

And a key to understanding why leaders succeed is to understand how they think and work.

Two articles The New York Times published October 29 offer perceptive insights into leadership by looking at leaders who achieved extraordinary business success.

In “The Genius of Jobs,” Walter Isaacson says that what distinguished the late Steve Jobs was his intuition, “based not on conventional learning but on experiential wisdom.”

Isaacson, author of a new biography of Jobs, says the maestro of Apple combined “an appreciation of the humanities with an understanding of science,” was “emotionally attuned” to his staff and to consumers, could “intuit the relationships between different things,” and was able to execute on his vision.

In the second article, “What’s Luck Got to Do With It?”, Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen say highly successful business leaders are able to generate a high “return on luck,” good or bad.

Based on an examination of 230 “significant luck events” their subjects experienced, Collins and Hansen found that the big winners were not generally “luckier” than other leaders they studied.

While good and bad luck happens to everyone, they say, those like Microsoft’s Bill Gates who achieve extraordinary success “recognize luck and seize it.”

And while getting a high return on good luck is “essential,” getting a high return on bad luck can be a “truly defining moment” if a leader takes hold of it and transforms it into an opportunity, Collins and Hansen say.

So at a time of economic, social and global crises that have unleashed massive instability throughout the charitable marketplace, we need leaders with vision, intuition and the ability to identify, grab and run with opportunity.

Charities are living on the edge, their staffs stressed, their capacity strained, and their boards on auto pilot.

Donors are cautious and looking for involvement and impact, foundations are looking for evidence-based programs with a lot of impact, and corporate givers are looking to invest in causes that will make a big impact on social and global problems that also represent big obstacles to their own bottom line.

To thrive, nonprofits need more than just good managers; they need leaders with vision and intuition who can recognize big problems, both in their organizations and in their communities; identify and connect seemingly unrelated resources and strategies; and inspire people and partners who can work together and invest in addressing those problems.

Whether they are paid employees, volunteers or board members, charities need leaders with the vision to transform random luck into the opportunity to make a big difference in helping people and places in need.

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