Be the Cheetah! Nonprofit Leadership For Our Time

August 1, 2013 //
CJ Callen

By CJ Callen

While recently scanning The New York Times I came across this promo for the article “Cheetahs’ Secret Weapon: A Tight Turning Radius”:
“A study shows that the large feline’s key to hunting success is not its speed but its skill at leaping sideways, changing directions abruptly, and slowing down quickly.”
Perhaps no truer set of words capture what it takes to effectively lead a nonprofit organization in 2013. In the past, I have observed a reverence for powerful organizations that move quickly (though not necessarily adeptly or with finesse). Accelerating at their rapid pace they tend to catch the attention of investors, which fuels the cycle of speed and power. Of course, when things unexpectedly get in the way and impede progress, they are often not able to adapt and their fall can be a hard one.
I’m a firm believer in a different approach, one that honors power and control – and adaptability, and which will ensure ongoing success even when roadblocks pop up. As a nonprofit leader at the helm of an organization that is over 20 years old, I don’t think power alone will do. Because we are older we can’t move with the speed that comes from being the new kid on the block. We are mature and, so, more complex, which tends to reduce our MPH. But we have self-knowledge that we have learned in our journey coupled with some interesting moves and the flexibility of a studied yogi. This has helped our organization to stay focused and remain alert, to spot opportunity and pursue it, and to slow down quickly to seize opportunity and make forward progress. Like the cheetah, our success lies in our ability to adapt to what’s happening around us and to recalibrate our path accordingly. No time for strategic planning here but this approach reflects a deep appreciation of strategic thinking coupled with immediate action.
So how can we build organizations that can turn on a dime? How can we build in our board cultures a reverence for power combined with dizzying control? These are the true moves needed to ensure meaningful systemic impact. And just to be crystal clear, when I say to my fellow nonprofits, “Be the cheetah,” I don’t mean be predatory but, rather, use your skills in surprising ways for far superior results. Work in ways that build your “flex” muscles. Have fun with your new dance moves.
Image: Mara 1
Here’s my story of turning on a dime. Our organization was approached to support the work of the White House Council for Community Solutions my third day on the job. We had to shift course quickly and demonstrate extreme flexibility in order to take on this new area of work on a national stage. It has had its ups and downs but I am glad that we embraced the risk and took on the work. We have learned so much that will only make us more limber when the next opportunity rolls around and we need to leap sideways, change directions abruptly, and slow down quickly.
Ok, so now that you’ve got this concept flowing in your nonprofit executive blood stream, what do you do with it?
  • Use it to help your board understand how the strategic planning work you are doing will help you have the clarity and internal capacity to turn on a dime.
  • Use it to reassure yourself when others think that the way to the Golden Fleeceis a fast straight run for the goal and you’re the lone voice for growing something slowly and thoughtfully.
  • Use it to become a more adaptive leader who is not afraid to turn on a dime because you are confident that it is the key to success.
  • Use it to jump-start a conversation among funders and nonprofits about the adaptive approaches needed to build strong social justice movements. (For my action step on this, please see the invitation below.)
In closing, with the cheetah analogy in mind, I offer you a couple of resources that I continue to revisit because they help me build my flex muscles. They are ones you may be aware of, yet they are always worth another visit.
  • Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath – I’m a student of big ideas and how change happens. This book helps us think about how to make our ideas sticks. It challenges our thinking in the best of ways and builds our “flex” muscle to make us better, more adaptive leaders.
  • Tribes by Seth Godin – My last blog was about the importance of finding your tribe and this book is all about that. Every leader needs to find the tribe that will give her the support to try new things and to move with power and control.
  • The Little Prince by Antoine Saint Exupéry – This is one of the most popular reads in the entire world and no surprise why. It inspires us to be our best, most creative selves and strikes at the heart of what it means to be a leader who is both adaptive and true. It is a reminder that when I say, “Be the cheetah” I don’t mean “Be the predator” but, rather, “Be your best self.”

An invitation: Let’s learn together about movement building

On a related note, I want and need to be in conversation with others who are committed to and want to be better at building a movement for social justice and racial equity. By “others,” I mean activists and funders alike because we both play critical and complementary roles in building strong and effective social justice movements. On the one hand, my glass is full: I have change agent colleagues whom I can talk to about our work – the good, the bad, and the ugly. On the other hand, my glass is empty: I don’t have a group of funders whom I can meet with to discuss our mutual leadership roles in movement building. I want to bring together funders and nonprofit leaders who are ready for regular, open, and honest conversations so that we can engage in playful inquiry, learn from each other, and stretch our thinking.
In my last blog post I invited new nonprofit executives to join me in forming a conversation group; I was able to form a group that continues to meet and grow in numbers. My new invitation is a seemingly more difficult quest given the power dynamic that often exists between funders and nonprofit staff. But I am up for the challenge and have in my back pocket a few strategies for diminishing the dynamics – trust me, I’m a funder and a nonprofit leader. Wearing those hats has afforded me plenty of empathy to spare for both.
So donor or funder, if you are interested in joining in conversation, please let me know. I’m keeping my fingers crossed because I want a conversation and am tired of the dance. 🙂  I’m sure there are like-hearted funders out there who want the same. I look forward to meeting you.


  1. The Whitman Institute on August 1, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    Hi CJ,

    Thanks for this thoughtful post and the way you link it to your invitation to funders and donors to join you in a different kind of conversation. Clearly, many people are tired of the dance you refer to. How to practice new steps is a challenge but one that can be met if approached with a desire to listen with empathy and curiosity. May your new invitation meet with the same success as your earlier one!