I’ve been writing about leadership and young nonprofit professionals for the past three years, and what I’ve finally come to is this: one of our biggest misconceptions about leadership is that it has something to do with a title.
The nonprofit sector often operates as if leadership were a noun. They look to “the leadership” to provide the answers, and blame “the leadership” when ideas fail or solution don’t come fast enough. I’ve heard many a young professional talk about leaving their organization because of disappointment in “the leadership.” The problem with this sentiment is that it assumes that leadership is a position at the top of the org chart and that it’s the responsibility of one person (or a select few) to lead the agency to success.
That’s why we use the term “emerging leaders.” Because we think that until you’ve reached the CEO position or ascend to a senior management role or reach the ripe age of 50, you have not yet “emerged.”
But what if we thought of leadership as a verb?
What if we stopped trying to limit the parameters around who is capable of practicing leadership? A leader could be the President of the organization, but it could also very well be that college intern you hire for the summer who changes the way a program is run. Leadership scholar Ron Heifetz has said that because you cannot truly predict who will practice leadership, you have to look for leadership in action by everyone involved in an organization or a sector. Ron also points out that we often make the mistake of equating leadership with authority. But leadership is not the same as authority. Leadership is not the fancy title on you business card. Leadership is what you do.
I think deep down, we know that. I think we’re ready for that shift.
The trick is getting emerging leaders to see themselves as current leaders. Emerging leaders ask permission. They think they have to. Current leaders do what they know to be the right thing for the organization and ask for forgiveness later. And guess what? They rarely need it.
The so-called “leadership crisis” as it relates to nonprofit organizations is not that we don’t have enough emerging leaders in our ranks, or even that emerging leaders aren’t prepared to take on leadership roles once Baby Boomers begin to retire. It is that we haven’t yet made the leap from calling ourselves emerging leaders to recognizing that we are already current leaders. When will we start treating leadership as a verb instead of a noun?