Are you a great leader and you haven’t realised it? Maybe it’s time to take a closer look at your contribution.

Ruth Osborne

In working with coaching clients, I often hear folk claim they are not leaders, and it’s my privilege to help them discover leadership, articulate it for themselves, and then use it consciously in their work and life. I’m particularly interested in this realisation of leadership within the not for profit sector particularly as it plays out in smaller NGOs and community organisations.  And I see a lot of leading happening by some great – if ‘small’ – leaders (if that makes sense) than is given credit for.

This was certainly my experience, which may be why I notice it in others.  In my mid-thirties, a client asked me why I did not consider applying for a directorship role, because in her estimation, I was a “really good leader”.  I nearly fell off my chair laughing because I did not see myself as a leader at all and said as much.  I saw myself as very much part of the collective – ‘the people’.  Those in the room were emphatic that I was a leader, but I genuinely could not see it (although for over a decade I had run/managed/led/facilitated projects and influenced a lot of people whilst doing so). 

The reason I did not see myself as a leader, was because I had a very particular concept of what a leader looked like. And I certainly did not fit it.

Any imposter syndrome there may have been aside, the reason I did not see myself as a leader – or at least leading – was because I had a very particular concept of what a leader and leadership looked like.  And I certainly did not fit it.

At that point, I saw a leader in a not for profit as a high-profile champion, and/or a passionate visionary for something which they’d drive through a situation to reach – a bit like a motorway being built through a countryside to reach a city.  And I saw myself as neither of these, so I did not believe I fit the profile of a leader.  I also believed to be a leader you had to have a formal role to do any leading.  Again, a misconception.

A very useful resource I have found to help me gain clarity over what a leader look is like, is Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice and Leadership the four frames by Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal (2017).  Their four very helpful ‘frames’ are easily applicable to leadership within not for profit and community organisations, and the whole message is, that to be more effective as a leader or manager, you need to use all four frames, and not just one or two.  The following is their summary of the frames. You will recognise yourself in them:

Structural Leaders emphasise rationality, analysis, logic, facts, and data. They are likely to believe strongly in the importance of clear structure and well-developed management systems.  A good leader in the structural leader's view is someone who thinks clearly, makes the right decisions, has good analytic skills, and can design structures and systems that get the job done.

Human Resource Leaders emphasise the importance of people. They endorse the view that the central task of management is to develop a good fit between people and organisations. They believe in the importance of coaching, participation, motivation, teamwork, and good interpersonal relations. A good leader in the view of a human resource leader is a facilitator and participative manager who supports and empowers others.

Political Leaders believe that managers and leaders live in a world of conflict and scarce resources.  The central task of management is to mobilise the resources needed to advocate and fight for the unit’s or the organisation’s goals and objectives. Political leaders emphasise the importance of building a power base: allies, networks, coalitions. A good leader to a political leader means an advocate and negotiator who understands politics and is comfortable with conflict.

Symbolic Leaders believe that the essential task of management is to provide vision and inspiration. They rely on personal charisma and a flair for drama to get people excited and committed to the organisational missions.  A good leader in their view is a prophet and visionary, who uses symbols, tells stories, and frames experience in ways that give people hope and meaning.

In a not for profit, to successfully achieve a mission, all four types of leadership are needed. 

Whilst my historic frame of not for profit and community organisation leadership was that of the Visionary (Symbolic) Leader, I’ve also met many a Visionary Leader whose big idea to change the world had never even reached the ground because the other frames of leadership were not in play alongside making it happen.  The ‘Big Vision’ remained in the zone of the ‘blue sky’ and didn’t change anyone’s life for the better.

Recently the financial head of an international NGO shared with me he was struggling with his American superiors because they were requiring him to be more of a Visionary Leader and set direction for what had to happen.  At the time he was saying he just could not do that, as it was not his style as a laid-back Kiwi. I agreed with him. He thought maybe he wasn’t a leader. I couldn’t agree with that.  Kudos to him, he took matters into his own hands, did some self-learning with pod-casts and the like, and now several months on he has used his excellent Structural and HR leadership skills to not only overhaul the global accounting system, but embed it and put the required staff in place around the world who will ensure it moves successfully forward.  Brilliant! An excellent leader, portraying leadership, leading others and being leaderful. Is he a high-profile champion with a big vision? No.  But he’s still a leader, and a much needed one at that, because without his unique contribution the ‘Big Vision’ of this organisation would have ground to a halt.

I hear versions of that story often from clients.  It’s my story too:  it took years before it dawned on me that my client was right, I was a leader (and still am!), just not a natural Visionary Leader. Mostly my best contribution to the Leadership Table are my abilities in the other three frames.

Is this your story? 

If you’re in a not for profit or community organisation, but you’re not the Visionary Leader (or Director or CEO), you could in fact be an amazing leader, but you just don’t see it. 

Maybe it’s time to have a closer look at your contribution and give some credit where it’s due. (And if you are the Visionary Leader, maybe it’s time to overtly name people with the other three frames as ‘leading’ and give them a seat at the Leadership Table with you.)

In part, using Bolman & Deal’s four frames, here are some signs that you are absolutely a leader, or least ‘leaderful’:

1.       You can see “what needs to be done” areas, and often those areas have a theme, and that theme could be either HR, systems or external relations.  This area of work in the organisation is very important to you.

2.       In meetings with your colleagues, you see the work the organisation does through one of those frames, and language it accordingly.

3.       You’re able to influence others in the organisation along the lines of that frame – others listen to you when you talk about it.

4.       You’re intentional about it, and you find yourself thinking about it. You see the work you do mostly through that frame, and in that way.

5.       You lead yourself in this area e.g. if you’re passionate about the human capital of the organisation and workplace well-being, you take good care of yourself; OR if you’re concerned about the alliances with other organisations, you find yourself networking easily with others in your field looking for common ground.

That’s a very short list and just a start.  Having a coach is another way to explore the landscape of your own leadership, developing both the mindset and skills set of a leader.  Coaching is a series of thoughtful, reflective conversations which aim at unlocking your potential and growing your skills. It’s highly effective professional development, because it’s bespoke to you and your needs.  It might be just what you need to reframe your valuable contribution as an emerging leader in 2019.