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When business gets personal

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James Boyle

James Boyle

James Boyle

In many ways, nonprofit organizations are subjected to closer scrutiny than most organizations in the private sector.

Right or wrong, nonprofit executive directors are the leaders charged with maintaining high standards and the ones held accountable by the community, board of directors and even staff. 

Criticism of an executive director can happen at any time, during any meeting with a stakeholder, and these situations are always tough, especially when the stakeholder is just as passionate and committed to the organization’s mission. 

Even though some interactions can be uncomfortable, avoiding them is probably not a good option for executive directors. So making sense of how to handle such encounters is vital to a leader’s success.

An executive director once told me that after a contentious board meeting, she went back to her office, shut the door, and cried. She was so dismayed about how one “self-righteous person” could send her into a hysterical tailspin. She described how all her buttons were pushed by a board member who attacked her capabilities in front of everyone.

Since she let her emotions lead her reaction, the situation left her feeling exposed and vulnerable. In her estimation, she did not act in the manner a leader should under pressure.

Many leaders have had their buttons pushed in public by a critical member of staff or a board member. It just seems to come with the job. But contrary to what many might think, how a leader chooses to handle the situation can actually produce a favorable outcome.  

Reaction is from emotion. 

When we are angry or upset at someone, our reactions do not usually represent who we really are at our core. 

Our emotions activate our defenses and we see enemies instead of colleagues. Our thinking becomes unclear, and we create blocks that prevent us from moving beyond the emotional suffering and confusion of the moment.

It is common to find ourselves doing and saying things that are out of character and not typical under calmer conditions, thus resulting in a response that is less controlled and focused than we’d like.  

Response is from awareness.

It is important to be aware that the person throwing barbs has his or her own agenda that we cannot control. 

However, we can control whether we let that person “mess with our head.”  We choose how we feel, and no one can make us feel anything that we do not allow. 

Practicing this belief and recalling it during times when our emotions might get the better of us can help reduce the stress and negative emotions of the moment. That way we can formulate a response in accordance with our true character. 

Leaders should recognize that the naysayers will always be out there, but how we let their criticism affect us dictates where we are in terms of understanding ourselves.

Processing a response that is appropriate and aligned with our character comes when we understand who we are and who we want to be as a leader. This knowledge can help us build respect and an image of strength among colleagues.


James Boyle is founder and leadership coach at Higher Potentials, based in West Orange, New Jersey.  

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