Monday, September 8, 2008

My Theory on Nonprofit Leadership

Now that I have been studying nonprofit leadership for the past year -- can I claim to be an expert in the subject? Well no -- but I do have a theory.

The system of the Nonprofit Sector does not allow for collaborative leadership to occur, unless the Executive Director is strong enough to challenge the system.

Here's an excerpt from a paper I wrote this summer:
Some researchers argue that traditional models of leadership are not working within nonprofit organizations. They found younger leaders want participatory models of leadership and leadership sharing to occur (Keunrether & Corvington, 2007). A potential new model of leadership, relational leadership, has the potential to meet the participatory desires of younger leaders and nonprofit researchers alike. Relational leadership involves “a relational and ethical process of people working together attempting to accomplish positive change [or make a different to benefit the common good]” (Komives, Lucas & McMahon, p 74, 2007). However, is the system nonprofit sector ready for relational leadership?

Most nonprofit organizations are charities, and are required by law to be in business for the public benefit. Funders, donors, and the general public require nonprofits to do good at the lowest possible cost. This puts a strain on the internal cultures of many nonprofit organizations, so at times the culture does not provide adequate space for staff development, or time to make collaborative decisions, creating a crisis mode. Many organizations work from one funding source to another and focus solely on programs and may ignore staff and operations. In addition, many staff members in nonprofit organizations do not understand the complexities that are involved in running a nonprofit organization, so they may question or challenge why their organizations are run in a certain way. This is when the Executive Director must step in and decide how they are going to exercise leadership with their staff.

As stated above, the relational leadership model involves people working together to accomplish common good (Komives, Lucas & McMahon, 2007). Originally the relational leadership model was developed for college students; however it can be used in nonprofit organizations under specific circumstances. Also mentioned above, scholars and practitioners alike are advocating for a more collaborative style of leadership, like relational leadership, and, most nonprofits are in the business to benefit the common good which fits with the definition of relational leadership. Yet, because of a variety of factors, including the system of the nonprofit sector, it is challenging for people in organizations to actually agree on the “common good.”

Successful relational leadership allows for five components:

1. Inclusive of people and diverse points of view;
2. Empowering of others who are involved;
3. Purposeful—individual committee and common purpose;
4. Ethical—driven by moral leadership, and;
5. Process-Oriented—how the organization goes about being a group and accomplishing the group’s purpose (Komives, Lucas & McMahon, p 74, 2007).

If all five steps are met, then a group can agree on the common good. Unfortunately, the system is set up so that many nonprofit organizations do not have the time to follow these steps and the Executive Director ends up dictating the common good which creates further disagreement among staff. However, under the right circumstances if staff are ready, and the Executive Director is strong enough, the Executive Director can challenge the system and provide a space for relational leadership to occur.

Kunreuther, F., & Corvington, P.A. (2007). Next shift: Beyond the nonprofit leadership crisis. Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Komives, S.R., Lucas N., & McMahon, T.R. (2007). Exploring leadership: For college students who want to make a difference. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my theory?

For further theories on nonprofit leadership check out:

Improving Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations by Kravis Leadership Institute (Author), Jack Shakely (Foreword), Ronald E. Riggio (Editor), Sarah Smith Orr (Editor) -
My review: This book is specifically written by Leadership Studies scholars, heavily focused on the transformational leadership theory.

The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management, 2nd Edition Robert D. Herman, & Associates
My review: This book is more management versus leadership and when it talks about leadership it discusses more trait based view of leadership which seems to be a very popular theory amoung scholars studying leadership in the nonprofit sector.
We can debate about this later...

The Nature of Leadership by John Antonakis (Editor), Anna T. Cianciolo (Editor), Robert J. Sternberg (Editor)
My review: This book provides a great overview of leadership theories (not nonprofit specific, but relevant).

Also, my colleague Emily Davis has compiled a list of the latest nonprofit leadership and emerging leadership research studies published in the sector.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it the mission of the organization that "dictates the common good?" Regardless of the style of leadership, the direction of the organization is set by the mission, not by individuals within the organization.

So I would have to disagree with your theory. I don't think it is the "system of the nonprofit sector" that makes it "challenging for people in organizations to actually agree on the common good," but it is individuals who disregard the mission or have personal agendas or chase funding, etc. that create challenges for organizations. said...

I'm not sure if it is the system of the nonprofit sector that creates leadership challenges. If more nonprofit Boards were performing well and working closely with the executive director and department heads, a relational leadership structure should exist. To me,the idea of board governance is deomnstrative of relational leadership, it is just unfortunate that there sre so many ineffective boards.

Professor Carpenter said...

ok -- if its about the individual, then why do so many executive directors cause mission drift or why are there so many ineffective boards-- couldn't the system have a little to do with this?