Fresh Perspectives on Social Sector Challenges


I recently read blogs penned by my colleagues (linked below on the right) on the many challenges of a multigenerational workplace, the special challenges faced by younger workers considering a career in the social sector, and the specific challenge of CEO succession planning.

Among these varied and astute observations, I recognized the richness and diversity of experience, perspectives, and interests among our team. I was also reminded of how hard social sector leadership is, especially today, for leaders from every generation. Turnover among senior nonprofit leaders is brisk, recruiting people into these roles is challenging, and fewer organizations seem to have hit on the right mix of board, leaders, and staff to optimize advancing their missions. In short, there is a lot of distress in our organizations.

These concerns sent me back to a classic resource: The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner. With over thirty years of research backing them up, the authors identified five essential practices of effective leadership. My quick summary:

  • Model the Way – a leader sets and models standards of excellence
  • Inspire a Shared Vision – a leader engages the team in their vision of a better future
  • Challenge the Process – a leader is unafraid to take risks
  • Enable Others to Act – a leader builds spirited, collaborative teams
  • Encourage the Heart – a leader celebrates their colleagues’ accomplishments

Reviewing this model today, in light of countless conversations with social sector leaders and staff from every generation and level of responsibility, I am struck by how much agency Kouzes and Posner ascribe to leaders. The Leadership Challenge model empowers leaders to drive their organization’s direction, their team’s motivation, and their work’s outcome. Is that approach to leadership still valid?

Today’s social sector leaders are in a nearly impossible situation. While staff still have high expectations for their organizations, often expecting great things to be accomplished with limited resources, many are less interested in being led or inspired by people in senior positions. Given the crisis of management we are seeing across swaths of the sector, new leaders wonder if the role they have accepted is even possible. The skepticism about leadership is well-founded. As our planet burns, inequality soars, and our democracy lurches from one crisis to another, thoughtful people of every generation ask: How did we get here? What have our most visible leaders — those on the political stage and at the helm of large corporations — wrought in their search of power and riches?

The Leadership Challenge framework offers a way out of this bind. New younger, diverse leaders empowered by a board to lead must bring vision, drive, and tenacity; and must be willing to make hard decisions and move quickly. These attributes harken to Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, and Challenge the Process. Yet they must also lead in ways that Enable Others to Act and Encourage the Heart. Could it be Kouzes and Posner were on to something?

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