Nonprofit Leadership

About 14 years ago, I was invited to participate in a nonprofit leadership retreat on the grounds of an animal preserve. In fact, they told us not to go out walking after dark because you could end up face to face with an animal you might not want to be face to face with. Driving into the place was like entering Jurassic Park.

After two days of meeting, they took us on a tour of the grounds and showed us the animals. At one point, we got out of our van and stood about 10 feet away from a 30 foot high fence; slowly pacing behind it was a beautiful Bengal Tiger. Golden brown with markings and stripes right off the pages of National Geographic. Paws as big as my head. Her movement was calm, each step was measured. It was like she was expecting us. We all stood there quietly staring at her, she staring back at us.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw movement. It was one of my colleagues and he was walking up to the fence. From 10 feet, to eight, to six, starting to reach out his hand and… suddenly caught himself. Startled, he had a look on his face that said: “what the hell am I doing?”

Early in my career as a nonprofit leader, I sought power from my title, by ordering people around, and the occasional accolade bestowed upon me. Finding very little meaning in any of this, I began to look inward seeking a deeper sense of purpose and a set of values to guide me. As a result my power as a leader became 10 times stronger– not in terms of stereotypical “power,” but in terms of being able to bring the best of myself to work with other great leaders on creating a lasting impact. My satisfaction arose not from dominance or wielding influence, but from the knowing that I shared in the creation of something meaningful.

We are drawn to work in this field because of the compelling nature of mission, yet sometimes we struggle with truly living its ideal. External pressures, expectations from fellow board members and staff, and the many demands of ensuring our work remains relevant all contributes to a disconnect between what is in our hearts and the mission we pursue. This may sound like a righteous pronouncement, but if we are to succeed in elevating our causes and advancing our field, we need to know and embrace our sense of purpose, wear it on our sleeves, align it to those we work with, and together cultivate a shared sense of purpose that will propel our efforts forward.

When that tiger looked at us, there was no question where her power came from. She didn’t roar, claw at the fence, prance about, or threaten us. Within her was a deep knowing; a quiet place full of purpose… strong enough to pull us all in.

So, where does your power come from?