Leadership: The art of listening and explaining

Professional developmentMary Teresa Bitti

In 1990, the late John W. Gardner, founder of nonpartisan citizen lobbyist organization Common Cause and a well-respected participant in America’s educational, philanthropic and political life, penned a little book called “On Leadership.”

In it, he outlined specific tasks for leaders: Establish a vision; set goals affirm values motivate, teach, build community, diminish conflict, and serve as a symbol.

The effective leader, he wrote, is always doing several tasks simultaneously. He is also, always, listening.

In 2008, nonprofit leaders must carry out those tasks in an increasingly complex environment, says Gene Tempel, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, referring to the results-oriented world nonprofits and philanthropists now inhabit.

“You hear phrases batted about like ‘high-performing nonprofit,’ and ‘most effective nonprofits,’ and most foundations and funders want to put their money where they get ‘the most bang for their buck,'” says Tempel.

Nonprofits must move to the next level, he says, and to engage the kind of funding sources they need to do that and do some good in society, leaders must be able to carry out the tasks Gardner laid out so simply.

That starts by understanding where the gaps are, and engaging the right kind of people who will care about filling those needs, Tempel says.

In a word, they must create a vision.

“You first want somebody who knows the context around philanthropy, the nonprofit sector and the complexities of the environment today in which these organizations operate,” he says. “But then you want someone who knows about good planning, good management, human resources, financial-resource management, good fundraising programs to bring the resources in from the various sources, and then good evaluation.”

There are essentially two primary ways in which to access education.

More and more universities are offering programs where undergraduates can better prepare themselves to move up in nonprofit organizations.

Many of master’s degree programs are geared to accept working managers and leaders. Executive master’s degree programs are geared to full-time nonprofit leaders, allowing them to learn through a combination of online and in-class sessions.

Many institutions now offer Internet-based courses, says Tempel, noting it is possible to receive a certificate in nonprofit management by taking five graduate-level courses entirely online.

The second avenue of leadership training comes from conferences and workshops, or specific programs offered by nonprofit associations to their membership.

And there are a couple of less formal routes to professional development.

“Sometimes people pick up skills and develop themselves by having a consultant that works with them on projects,” says Tempel. “You could get someone to come in and help you with your strategic planning, and that would be a learning opportunity. An audit of your fundraising program could help you restructure your development program.”

Finally, executive coaches, long relied on in the for-profit sector, are moving into the nonprofit sector.

“This is another way to increase leadership capacity,” says Tempel.

Perhaps the most important skill a leader must have is the ability to listen, he says.

“Leading is not just having a vision and pulling people in a certain direction,” he says.

It involves a lot of listening, as well as explaining, he says.

“A leader has to constantly explain to people what it is we are trying to do, why we are trying to go there, and bring people into that,” says Tempel. “You don’t force people into that, you bring people into that.”

“When people articulate a vision and it works, it’s because it resonates with those who hear it,” he says. “That means you’ve listened carefully to a lot of people and they see themselves in there.”

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