Image credit: Lynn’s Little Bit of Trivia

Hildy Gottlieb’s latest post has got me to thinking more about the so-called generational leadership gap in nonprofit organizations. She and I agree that there is not really a “gap” in leadership. What we really have is an ongoing disconnect around the myth that young people aren’t yet “ready” to take the reigns from current leaders .  . . when it’s clear that we absolutely are. This inability for many older leaders to pass the torch is partly what causes young people to become disenchanted with nonprofit work and often underperform in their current roles. Many young nonprofit professionals are waiting until they get the title of “Director” to lead. They are waiting until their older colleagues deem them “ready” to lead instead of emerging as leaders in the here and now. But what we have to understand is that this behavior doesn’t benefit our organizations nor the communities we seek to serve. What we have to understand is that we need as many young people as possible to emerge as nonprofit leaders, even if they don’t have a title. The future of the nonprofit sector depends on it.

Leadership theorist Peter Northouse outlines the fundamental difference between assigned and emergent leadership in his book Leadership Theory and Practice.  He asserts that assigned leadership is based on being hired into a particular position in an organization: “Executive Director/CEO” or “Development Director” or “Senior Vice President” etc. Assigned leadership is based on having a certain title in an organization that automatically deems you a leader. Northouse points out, however, that assigned leaders are not always necessarily perceive as the “real leader” of the organization. For instance, they may be the big boss, but the only reason their employees obey them is because they fear getting fired.

In contrast, emergent leadership is exhibited when an individual is perceived to have influence in a group or organization, regardless of their title. How does this happen?

In his 1974 book Small Group Decision Making: Communication and the Group Process, B. Aubrey Fisher proposed that successful leader emergence happens over time as a result of several positive communications behaviors. He said that one could emerge as a leader without being assigned a title if one exhibited the following behaviors:

Be Verbally Involved

This means, speak up! The more you insert your voice into the decision-making process of your organization, the more visible you become to everyone. Ask questions, even if you think they’re dumb. Don’t just be a head nodder, speak up and verbalize why you agree with a certain decision. Likewise, if you disagree with a decision that’s being made, say so. And explain why. People may not agree with you, but they will respect you for speaking your mind. Many times, the other people around the table are thinking the same thing you are. If you get the opportunity to lead a meeting, do it! And if you have rotating staff meetings, volunteer to run one of them.

Be Informed

Stay abreast of what’s happening in your nonprofit and your field. Being knowledgeable can give you an edge in your work as well as earn you a reputation as an “expert” within your organization. Read all of your own organization’s newsletters and annual reports. Examine your own 990s on Guidestar. Using social media as your news feed can definitely help you stay informed, as Elisa commented on this blog recently:

Twitter has definitely helped my career! It has helped me build my knowledge base on nonprofit best practices, resources and technology which has allowed me to contribute intelligently to conversations within the office and provide evidence to back up my statements. In the last couple of places I’ve worked, I’ve also been one of the first people to find out about late breaking news or important new resources that have just come out relevant to our work. Both of these things have helped me build my ‘clout’ within the office and made me a more indispensable employee.

Seek Others’ Opinions

Many times, the opinions of young people can be discounted because of our age. On some, “what does this kid think she knows?” It’s not right, but it still happens. It may be fair to call this reverse ageism, but it won’t help to go around accusing people in your organization of being ageist. No one likes to be called names, even if the shoe fits. Instead, consider asking older colleagues what they think of your ideas before you present them. That way you’ll be able to tweak them if they bring up an angle you haven’t thought about, and they can support you when it’s time to possibly implement your idea within the organization.

Initiate New Ideas

You know you have great ideas. I know you have great ideas. But does anyone else? It doesn’t help your organization for you to sit still and silent when you have a way to improve the way your nonprofit provides services or help save your nonprofit money. I once worked at an organization where we were paying a ton for health insurance for all our employees because no one had the time to do the research to see if there were any comparable, but less expensive plans out there. If someone had taken that on as a stretch assignment, it would have been a great idea and extremely helpful to our bottom line.

Be Firm But Not Rigid

We learn about a lot of great theories in grad school. We read a lot of management books. We know how to use a lot of great social media tools. We may think we know a thing or two. And we do. But we also have to remember that our ideas are not the only ideas. They may not even be the best ideas. If you present an idea and nobody else is into it, don’t write them all off as ageist losers, but continue to work with your colleagues to come up with something that makes sense to everyone. It pays to know your stuff, but you can’t be so rigid that it’s “your way or the highway.”

What are some ways that you’ve been able to lead within your organization (or in your community) without having a title? How else would you interpret Fisher’s five suggested behaviors?