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Foster the qualities that set great leaders apart

It can be tough to pinpoint exactly what makes someone a great leader. Still, we know strong leaders when we see them — and especially when we work for them.

Leadership skills are important in all endeavors. In the nonprofit world, which requires extra commitment, passion and dedication, it's even more crucial that volunteers and staff are galvanized by key leaders. If leaders project an authentic belief in the mission — and the energy and optimism to make it succeed — those on the front lines or behind the scenes will be reminded why they chose this work in the first place.

Management vs. leadership

The words "management" and "leadership" are often used interchangeably in the workplace, but they're really two different things.

Managing a team means supervising team members and holding them accountable. A manager has the formal authority to oversee the day-to-day operations of the organization. Managers are relied on for skills such as staffing, scheduling, appraising and creating processes. In contrast, leadership is more of an art. True leaders create a vision for the organization and strategically involve everyone in making it a reality.

Plus, leadership can spring up anywhere at any time.

If you asked a group of colleagues to name the leader of the organization, most would give a default answer: the CEO, executive director, chief executive or president of the board. But what about that entry-level coordinator with the quick wit, marketing sense and big ideas? She may not have the sanctioned authority to make the call, but people want to hear her take. There's something about her — a sense of confidence and purpose — that gives her a different kind of authority. That's leadership in action.

Qualities of the most effective nonprofit leaders

The big boss may have a fancy title, a corner office and the final say, but none of these things automatically command the respect and admiration of a team. The traits of a true leader are much harder to come by, and much more valuable. Here are a few characteristics often shared by effective leaders.

They make big waves with limited resources

The best leaders are innovative, resourceful and unintimidated by the unique challenges of the nonprofit world. Not only can they manage their budgets responsibly, they have an eye on the next financial opportunity for the organization — whether it's a donor prospect or a lucrative sponsorship. Their mastery of the financial side of the business makes their team members feel secure and optimistic for the future.

They step up in times of crisis

When the public image of the organization is at stake, the real leaders are easy to spot. They don't panic and they don't shut down. They open up to sage advice from people who understand the situation and develop an action plan that makes sense.

They back up their knowledge with experience

Great nonprofit leaders can fundraise with the best of them, negotiate contracts and manage complex budgets. They have a strong network of contacts in the community and know exactly when to call on them. They understand the ins and outs of working with a board of directors and harnessing the skills and resources of its members.

They attract people to the mission

Effective leaders are like shepherds for their cause — they bring people in. The ease with which they communicate the purpose of their organization to a powerful donor, a prospective hire, a parent on the sidelines of a soccer game or a person in need is second nature to them because they're doing it day in and day out.

They understand people

Emotional intelligence is often one of the most under-appreciated qualities of a candidate for a high-level position. A CEO who looks perfect on paper but doesn't pay attention to what makes people tick — or lacks the interest to find out — will only be goading, not leading.

They listen

Good leaders put stock in the opinions of team members at all levels. Not only do they encourage people to speak up, they approach people and ask them to weigh in on big-picture strategies. This is a great way to both spot new talent and test out a new idea in its infancy. Effective leadership is collaborative, and effective leaders are curious and open-minded. They don't want to be surrounded by "yes" people, but rather by the smartest and most innovative people they can find.

They make the right calls

Good judgment is paramount when it comes to leadership. If someone has a history of making informed and sensible decisions, he or she will quickly gain trust and admiration. Questionable or hasty decisions that put the mission in danger are hard for people to forget.

They live to open doors and knock down barriers

The traditional office was a top-down affair, set up so that junior staff members supported their managers and bosses. Today, that dynamic is changing. The most effective leaders hire people who are well-suited for the role, and then they get out of the way. They ask themselves questions like these:

  • What new growth opportunity can I offer Sally this year?
  • What would make her work life easier?
  • What resources can I find to help her do her job better?

An effective leader takes personal responsibility for making the team feel fulfilled, productive and motivated.

They define success — and don't stop until they reach it

Leaders don't wait to be told where they need to take the organization. They already have the ideas, the dreams and the road map for how to get there. They deftly manage the expectations of stakeholders while setting their own agendas and getting their team on board.

The power of great leadership

Inspired leadership takes any organization to the next level — and you don't need to wait for those dynamic people to walk in the door and apply for the highest position available.

Leadership potential can be spotted, and it can be encouraged. Nurturing leadership skills and characteristics in the employees you already have can be hugely rewarding for all involved. A bright and loyal employee who moves up the ranks, gaining institutional knowledge along the way, may become an incredibly effective leader.

That entry-level coordinator we mentioned earlier with the big ideas? Give her the reins on a project and empower her to set her own professional goals. With the confidence and support of the organization backing her up, one day she might be running the show.



MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.



Minnsota Council of Nonprofits: Are leaders always managers?

Nonprofit Answer Guide: What does an effective nonprofit leader look like?

Idealist Careers: 6 characteristics of the new nonprofit leader by Nell Edgington (2013)

The Moran Company: 12 attributes of great nonprofit leaders by William J. Moran

Ivey Business Journal: Profiling the non-profit leader of tomorrow by Jean Crawford (2010)



Vice president of communications at Texas Exes