The Leadership Opportunity: You’re Next!
By David Livingston Styers
Director, Consulting Services / Senior Board Governance Consultant
Center for Volunteer and Nonprofit Leadership
The great hockey player Wayne Gretzky, when asked what was the secret to his success, said:
A good hockey player plays where the puck is.
A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.
Which are you doing and going to do – are you just trying to find the puck or are you working to be prepared for the puck when it arrives?
Anticipating tomorrow — constituent and stakeholder needs, shifts in funding streams, board composition, and on and on — is critical for leadership today. The nonprofit sector has been undergoing tremendous change in recent years from the downtown in the economy to the beginning generational shift of organizational leadership. And we will all have to learn to live in the new normal that has resulted in society, our communities, and our daily lives, and adapt accordingly. Take this quote:
Just as millions of U.S. citizens want to reduce the federal budget deficit, but not by giving up their tax dollars or benefits or jobs, so, too, managers may consider adaptive work a priority but have difficulty sacrificing their familiar ways of doing business. People need leadership to help them maintain their focus on the tough questions. Disciplined attention is the currency of leadership.
Sound familiar and indicative of today? Well, it was actually written more than 15 years ago by Harvard professors Ronald Heifetz and Donald Laurie in an article entitled “The Work of Leadership” about adaptive change and adaptive leadership to best cope with our rapidly changing environment. And their writing certainly seems prescient and as relevant today as then, doesn’t it? As much as things have changed, some things are still, maybe sadly, very much the same.
While the economic challenges we have faced since the fall of 2008, I presume, caught us all by surprise, we have known for a long time that the 77 million Baby Boomers born between 1946 and 1964 are nearing the traditional retirement age. Some of you may be excited about this, while others are a little wary. Regardless, we are entering a period of both transition and opportunity for Baby Boomers and the 100-plus million Generation Xers and Gen Yers born during or after 1965 that follow. Note that only 14% of board members are under the age of 40.
Many of you recognize the significance of this transition, but you may be challenged about how to address the impact and opportunities of this change. More and more, organizations are realizing that to be successful and recruit and retain the best leaders, both staff and board, they must value unique talents and include diverse voices. We must develop the skills and networks of leaders to not only help expand and improve the nonprofit talent pool but also help provide professional and personal development for leaders in general.
Again, critical to this adaptive work will be the establishment of both trust and diversity at all levels and in all aspects of leadership. Mutual respect and tapping into the perspectives and expertise of different backgrounds will help ensure our organizations are making the best decisions possible.
There has never been a better time to engage in the vital work that nonprofits are doing in your communities. Thus, this truly is the great opportunity of our day, though it will not be without its challenges. But when we work together on innovative forms of engagement and new ways of doing business, everyone benefits.
Ultimately, you need to feel and know that you can make a difference to the nonprofit organizations and people they serve. Organizations are like an oyster — without friction, an oyster cannot produce a pearl. Board members can be just what a nonprofit needs — that tiny spec of friction — to form a beautiful pearl — the pearls of active citizens, effective institutions, and vibrant communities.