Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What it takes to be a great (nonprofit) leader: Three powerful questions from a TED Talk





What does it take to be a powerful 21st century leader? What three questions drive those leaders?

I couldn't help framing the questions at the center of this Roselinde Torres TED Talk in the context of nonprofit leadership and, more specifically, nonprofit leadership as enacted by our boards. What unfolded in that reframing both reinforced messages I've been conveying here all along and added a layer of context that is helpful.

In this talk, Torres calls on us to abandon traditional definitions of leadership (and the development programs that perpetuate them) in favor of new capacities that accommodate the different kinds of demands and aspirations needed today and in the future.

Torres offers three transformative questions that emerged in her research of effective 21st century leaders.

 

Question one: "Where are you looking to anticipate change?"


The answer, according to Torres, can be found in our everyday interactions: "Who are you spending time with? On what topics?...What are you reading? How are you distilling this into understanding discontinuity?," she asks. "Great leaders are not bent down. They see around corners, shaping the future, not reacting to it."

"See around corners." What might that look like in boardroom discussions and on board agendas? Where are we focusing our time? Where are our priorities? How do we bring them into alignment, so that our attention is on "see(ing) around corners" and "shaping the future, not reacting to it?"

 

Question two: What is the diversity measure of your network?"


What do our personal and professional stakeholder networks look like, individually and collectively as a board? This Torres quote prompted a "Bingo!" reaction from me:

"Great leaders understand that having a more diverse network is a source of pattern identification at greater levels and also of solutions, because you have people thinking differently than you are."

That single sentence articulated the critical importance of diversity in the boardroom. That is why diversity - in all of its forms - matters.

Question three: "Are you courageous enough to abandon a practice that has made you successful in the past?"


We can't afford to protect the status quo in the nonprofit sector, even if it's served us well in the past. "Great leaders dare to be different," Torres says. "They don't just talk about risk taking, they actually do it." Nonprofits need courageous leaders who are willing to shake things up in service to the future.

Greatness comes, Torres says, when we build up our stamina to stand up to those who would question our wisdom - even call us foolish - for trying something different (especially if it's risky). She adds that oftentimes, our peers are more likely to call us into question. For support in our change efforts, Torres tells us, we may have better success looking outside our usual circle of friends and acquaintances to individuals who normally think differently than we do (hint: another reason that diversity matters). To succeed in the future, we must expand our networks of allies and resources.

I'm still processing the finer points of this marvelous talk, but I'm fascinated by what this suggests for 21st century nonprofit governance as leadership. I'm also interested in your reactions: What are your takeaways, especially within the context of nonprofit boards?

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