The unexpected election of President Trump and his signals regarding future support for many social causes have sent waves of anxiety rippling through the nonprofit world. The proposed 2018 budget slashes funding for many public institutions that fund essential nonprofit work: USAID faces a 30 percent decrease, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development may need to trim 13 percent of its costs. With this political climate as backdrop, we recently requested input from more than 40 global development and social justice leaders about the leadership skills needed to navigate this “new normal.”
To our surprise, the group was significantly more upbeat than we expected about the potentially disruptive priorities of the Trump administration. Some respondents reported that many organizations have witnessed record surges in donations and supporter engagement since the election. Others highlighted the administration’s support for market-oriented solutions and collaborations between civil society and business. These partnerships could prove to be “rocket boosters” for the sector, offering new approaches, new funding models, and an escape from the bureaucracy and contract restrictions typical of traditional government grants.
The administration’s priorities will no doubt pose challenges for some organizations, but the consensus was that the sector will face greater disruptions in the years ahead, including climate change and technological innovation. These fundamental changes to the business model and financial structures are what matter most to these leaders.
Moreover, they told us the most important leadership skills will remain unchanged in the new political environment. If anything, these skills are now more important than ever before.
To identify the leadership attributes most critical to social sector CEO effectiveness, we enlisted the help of more than 60 CEOs, who completed a series of in-depth, well-validated psychometric assessments that focus on leadership-related characteristics. Since fundamental leadership attributes such as persuasiveness and strategic acumen transcend sectors, we compared the psychometric profiles of our global development and social justice CEOs to best-in-class corporate CEOs (based on a qualitative screen of performance assessment and a quantitative revenue hurdle) to identify what makes social sector leaders unique.
Our results paint a picture of a leader who draws on both intellectual and emotional intelligence to produce results. In comparison to their corporate counterparts, our social sector CEOs demonstrate stronger “head skills,” or aptitude for critical thinking and creative problem-solving. At the same time, these CEOs showcase significantly more “heart skills” than their for-profit peers. Their organizational missions motivate them personally, and they are collaborative, empathetic leaders who are attuned to others and open with their feelings. Interestingly, these attributes were consistent across our global CEO sample.
These attributes historically have been vital to the success of social sector leaders. And our analysis suggests that current CEOs with these leadership skills are likely to find themselves and their organizations particularly resilient to current and future political turbulence. Future challenges will require leaders who are:
Confident and creative problem-solvers. Given that nonprofits invariably operate with limited resources, their CEOs have historically been creative problem-solvers. Current political and economic uncertainty has heightened the need for leaders who are unorthodox thinkers. Future leaders will need to cope with funding gaps by devising new business models and innovative donor engagement strategies. In their decision-making, nonprofit leaders rarely have access to the real-time hard data that private sector leaders enjoy. Therefore, they need the confidence to trust their intuitions.
Pragmatic critical thinkers. Global development and social justice CEOs make decisions with the potential to save or significantly improve the lives of millions. This weighty responsibility requires leaders who are pragmatic, and able to critically and analytically evaluate information to produce the best possible decision, even when it is not easy to make. In some cases, this may involve recognizing when an organization can make a larger impact with a smaller footprint. During times of uncertainty in the social sector, leaders must anticipate problems and focus on objectives rather than procedures. Pragmatism will also be especially vital as leaders decide when and how to operate above partisan debate.
Collaborative and empathetic team players. Since global development and social justice nonprofits are often highly matrixed organizations that require consensus-building across a range of stakeholders, they benefit from leaders who can navigate complex interpersonal dynamics while keeping the entire organization engaged. In a multi-stakeholder environment, leaders who are receptive to others’ views are more likely to build consensus and therefore to succeed. This collaborative spirit will be particularly valuable as organizations adjust to the “new normal,” which will require organizations to build partnerships with businesses or other nonprofits to survive.
Personally motivated by the mission. In our experience recruiting leaders from across sectors into the nonprofit realm, personal commitment to the mission is a consistent predictor of success. CEOs cannot deliver on operational responsibilities or motivate their teams if they are not visibly and openly committed to the mission. This attribute becomes more important when leaders must adopt the role of “chief reassurance officer,” assuaging anxieties and bolstering confidence among staff who feel unmoored by political or funding changes. Several leaders mentioned the importance of knowing when and how to invoke the model of the heroic leader who can inspire to action, and when to demonstrate vulnerability by sharing their own anger or anxiety.
The leadership qualities critical to social sector CEO effectiveness have not changed, despite political and economic turbulence that threatens to destabilize funding and undermine many of the assumptions about public policy that have long guided the nonprofit sector. Leaders who possess these traits are likely to not only help their organizations withstand the winds of change, but successfully adapt to the “new normal” by finding new and more innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.