Supporting A Bolder Form of Leadership

I was reminded yesterday, at LeaderSpring’s A Bolder Form of Leadership luncheon, that non-profit organizations, on average, spend $29 a year on leadership development. Given how vital developing leadership is, this investment (or lack of it) is striking. In the NCRP’s report Cultivating Nonprofit Leadership, philanthropic support for leadership development is studied and found lacking. The report highlights intermediary organizations such as LeaderSpring .

LeaderSpring’s luncheon comes at a pivotal time when social change movements and leaders are constantly in the public eye, for causes like racial justice, ending police brutality, and marriage equality. Leadership development has always been important to strengthening social change work. Organizations like LeaderSpring, Rockwood Leadership Institute, and Social Transformation Project–all TWI grantees–are long term contributors to leadership development and innovation in the social sector. All three organizations are creating bolder, inclusive leadership and collaboration to advance equity in our world, in different ways. 

LeaderSpring’s luncheon featured a diverse panel, moderated by Alex Briscoe. The panel included Lateefah Simon, José A. Quiñonez, and Christina Bui. Each of the panelists shared their personal stories and how they came to do the work they do. From Jose losing both of his parents and emigrating to the U.S. as a child, to Lateefah being a teen mother in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, and Christina’s family escaping Vietnam as she remembered the fall of Saigon. The panelists each shared a deep connection to their work and have become leaders who give voices to communities who are often unheard and marginalized.

Each panelist spoke to the necessity of community. They all believe a leader, or an individual, does not (and cannot) do it alone. Jose said that even if a leader decides to move a mountain, details their three-point plan, and gets funding–there is no way they can move that mountain alone. Thus, even for individual leaders who are effective and thoughtful, they need a network of  leaders and other people around them committed to moving that same mountain, together. Lateefah, Jose, and Christina all mentioned multiple times throughout their lives where many people–friends, family members, mentors, and strangers alike–were instrumental in guiding their steps and informing their vision.

Another theme I’d like to relay from the panel is the need for spaces for leaders to just be and think. Spaces where leaders can reflect on how they lead and how they want to lead. A space where leaders can talk about “who and what they are,” as Lateefah says. The structure that LeaderSpring provides through it’s program design creates such space. It allows leaders to see themselves, learn about their leadership style, and innovate. It’s a space where they can rejuvenate and remember to be visionaries. After all, being visionaries is what brought them to the work.

As leaders in the social sector become engrossed in their organization’s needs, the pressure to focus on strategy and measurement for the pursuit of funding–this sometimes takes precedence over visioning and reflection.  The panelists reminded us of how important it is to cultivate visionary, joyful leaders and keep remembering the why. These leaders should not be spending 80% of their time fund-raising, they need to be dreaming, recalibrating, and leading.

By funding and supporting leadership development for social change leaders we can make sure this happens. Trust-based grants and general operating support are practices that support leaders to be visionaries, do the work, and not get bogged down in measuring the impact with a yard stick. As Lateefah put it–I’m paraphrasing of course, “If Martin Luther King Jr. came knocking on your door, at 32 [years old], with his vision–would you ask him for his theory of change? No, you’d just give him the money!”

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