Dani Robbins

Names Withheld to Protect the Guilty

In Leadership, Organizational Development on November 1, 2012 at 8:27 am

The first Executive Director I ever worked for got mad at her boyfriend for getting a haircut when her mom was coming to town. She also had us fill out two time sheets each week; one that said 9-5 every day and one that listed the hours we actually worked. She offered some vague explanation on why that was reasonable. She wouldn’t let me read the grant that I was hired to implement.

I was 22, fresh out of college and didn’t know how completely and utterly wrong each of those was. (It was a victim services agency; I knew the haircut thing was a problem.) I received very little training, absolutely no feedback, and no explanation of what my job was or how my performance would be evaluated.

As you might imagine, this was not the most helpful way to learn how to lead. Most of what I have learned, I’ve learned the hard way, by trial and error and baptism by fire. I fear it is how most nonprofit professionals learn.

Worse than that even is that most of us have at one time or another worked for someone who follows the model illustrated above: the command and control model. I know that because it is how most leaders lead – regardless of field or tax status. It’s not the best way, but it’s the way most us have seen modeled and it’s the easiest. It’s also the least effective as it reduces employee engagement, which consequently reduces productivity.

The problem with command and control is this: one person gives the command and holds the control. That means everyone else does what they’re told. They don’t question; they just do. And what do they do when they’re done? They come back!

Command and control leadership looks like this: (Let me know if any of this starts to sound familiar.)
• There’s a line out your door, and not just of the people that report to you, but of all the staff. Because the culture says that even though people may report to someone else, you have the answers, and the decision making power and you use it.
• People don’t question your instructions, even when they know the instructions are wrong, even when they conflict with something you said yesterday, even when the instructions are stupid, or worse, dangerous. Because the culture says they can’t.
• People don’t actually know what their jobs are, what your expectations are, how you are going to evaluate them and what that evaluation might be based on; they are trying to do what you want, but they don’t really know what that is and they can’t read your mind.

To be fair, there are times when command and control is the right style, but more often a more innovative approach will be more successful. “Do what I say” and “think for your selves” are mutually exclusive goals. If you want people to think for themselves, consider moving towards a more innovative leadership style.

As most of us have not had the opportunity to see a variety of styles modeled, each of us has seen multiple lessons of what not to do and plenty of opportunities to learn things the hard way. The lessons we learn the hard way tend to be the lessons we never forgot. Here are two lessons that took me too long to learn but once I understood and could articulate them, the world – and my capacity for leadership – changed:

• HR systems must match organizational values.
• Being good at your job isn’t enough. You have to be on the team and moving the organization forward.

Just because it’s what we’ve seen doesn’t mean it’s who we have to be. Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives offers another choice and path to develop your leadership style. There are many leadership books out there. Pick ours up. Pick another one up. Choose the type of leader you wish to be: Find a model that works for you; find a coach, friend or colleague who can assist, champion and challenge you; and start! You and your team will be glad you did!

Lead on!

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