sector insights
11 f 2015

Three Golden Principles for Next Generation NFP Leaders

Based on our work in the sector three principals have assisted many new leaders, particularly those who are young in life or the NFP sector, to become successful leaders.

1. You must know why you want to lead

As an enthusiastic and energetic emerging leader in the NFP sector you most likely will want to "help" others, but here's a news flash, so do the vast majority of the people working alongside you. Similar to a sports team, all the players love to play but they can't all be, and nor should they be, captain. It's not uncommon to hear NFP people recite their personal reason for working for an agency and wearing it as a badge of honour. Perhaps this helps remind us why we do such challenging work and somehow subsidises our efforts which are often undervalued, or maybe it is the way we justify our right to be NFP employees.

In any case, this narrative sharing is no longer relevant or useful if you want to lead a NFP, the sooner you recognise that passion is a prerequisite to NFP participation and not the sole qualifier for leadership, the quicker you will become a productive leader. Being a NFP leader is not about being the most passionate about the cause, rather it is about being the most able to harness, cultivate and put to work other people's passion. This requires a totally different mind and skill-set.

To develop this capability, you need to ask yourself why you want to lead, and explore your true motivations. For some of us less worthy folk, our motivations are not entirely altruistic, some of us are fuelled by the need for status, others the need for affiliation, attention and, dare I say, a need for power. These drives and their manifestations are taboo in some segments of the NFP sector as they can be seen as self-serving and non-benevolent. This may be justified in certain instances, however, it's not anyone's place to judge intrinsic values and motivators, as long as you are upright and always work for the organisational, community and client good. Self-knowledge and acceptance are the first and critical steps to making sure this happens. If you don't know who you are and what you stand for, and are not willing to improve then you simply have no right to guide the work life of others.

2. Be disciplined, be smart and sacrifice

Let's face it, words like discipline and sacrifice are not exactly fashionable at the moment. However, if you are a younger or inexperienced NFP leader on your journey to senior leadership take a look around you at the management table and see if you can spot these traits in those already leading. More often than not those senior to you will possess these traits, particularly if they are baby boomers. Keep in mind it was this generation who forged the welfare state as we know it and moved it away from residual welfare. Many long-time NFP leaders had to fight for funding, reshape minds and win public hearts. This takes discipline and sacrifice. The challenge for the next generation of NFP leaders is to understand that they all earnt their place at the table. Perhaps through a more social activist route but they certainly did not come fresh out of university and become CEOs or senior leaders overnight. They worked long and hard and, like many community workers, gave up much of their free time to get projects off the ground.

With that in mind don't be surprised if some of them are surprised to see you, after being hired into your role with 9-5 work conditions, a permanent contract and plush office, casually leading complex projects and people at age 25. To those who may doubt your experience, age or time in the job, is not to sulk or to become combative. It is to respectfully earn your place at the table by being the most knowledgeable about the business and by getting real tangible outcomes for the business. Keep in mind personality, charisma and talent are easily questioned and replaced but your work results are infallible and impervious to assault.

Furthermore, to consistently achieve positive results you will need to stretch yourself. That means working to your strengths and harnessing their power and working on your weakness in order to become better-rounded. If you want to lead you will have to constantly be learning new things outside of your interest areas, attend meetings outside of work hours and take on additional work. Irrespective of whether you are youthful or just inexperienced you cannot afford to be a novice at anything in a NFP. If your weakness is finance then take a course, if you don't have leadership experience volunteer in a role. Whatever the tactic may be you will have to work harder and be as smart as – or smarter – than everyone else to make up for your perceived inexperience. This extra effort and commitment you make will yield positive outcomes and establish you as an upcoming organisational leader.

3. Live and breathe equanimity

The NFP sector is rife with values-driven emotion. Emotional subject matter has a funny way of rousing up the best and worst in people. If you want to become a precocious leader in a values-charged workplace then you need to tap your own passion before asking others to do the same. People around you will be looking to you for strength when funding is precarious, leadership changes frequent and clients' needs increase and go unmet. These factors combined mean that you will need to learn to walk a fine line between being passionate about the cause, relationally embedded in your organisational and stakeholder community, and being business minded and objectives driven. The most successful NFP leaders achieve this by not becoming personally opinionated or excitable when faced with such challenges, instead they consistently point toward and reflect on the organisation's mission.

As some in the workplace clamour about asserting their views in times of stress, you need to remain composed and become the organisational mission evangelist, preaching on mission and never your personal values or agenda. The unflappable aplomb you demonstrate will be seen a ballast of support to those around you and will help others to trust that you are in leadership for the cause and not your own agenda. On the flip side as a new leader it is easy to fall into the natural human trap of operating according to your own emotions and in resonance with volatile environments, if left unchecked your leadership approach can snowball into a style of topsy-turvy emotional leadership. This erratic and fluctuating style perhaps scores you early runs from those who are in a like state but ultimately makes you difficult to follow and predict. As you become more emotionally charged, your followers will become less trusting of your objectiveness, impartiality and sense of organisational justice.


As featured on probonoaustralia.