Non-Profit Leadership: A Leader Who is Present

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One of the common criticisms of leaders within a system or organization is that it feels like they are disconnected from their staff. I think that critique gave rise to the popular television show “Undercover Boss.” It is a show where CEO’s of various companies disguise themselves and actually work alongside of their workers to learn what some of the struggles are within their organization. It is always illuminating what really goes on in the core of an organization. Often we as leaders appear to be clueless and detached from our staff as we lead and make decisions that impact them. 

A leader that is present has a connection to the varied aspects of their staff and organization.  There is the ability to relate to the entire organization in all of its parts because of the perspective, the posture and the actual availability of that leader within the organization. With all that rests on the shoulders of a leader that is more easily said than done.

I remember when I began my tenure at Lakeside as a leader it was a much smaller organization. I was able to be more present to most every staff member. I even took the time to meet with each staff member for interviews to learn where we were in need of change, growth or improvement. It set the standard for our communication and feedback that was very productive in our beginnings together.

However, our programs grew and staff expanded. We put other leaders in place. And my role changed to be more growth oriented and focused on our many challenges. It then became much harder to keep that connection. I previously enjoyed our conversations and maintained an open door policy for all staff – which I still offer – but quite frankly most of our staff have little time to communicate about what they are facing.

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So being present as the leader of Lakeside had many new challenges. I realized that it was impossible to stay current with the entire staff. I had to make different choices as to how and when I communicate to the staff. I began to write updates, to write individual letters at the holidays, to show up at key crisis moments, to make appearances at key developments in our programs, to attend all of our graduations, to be available for staff who are struggling personally, to attend funerals, weddings, and special occasions and find other ways to hear staff. I even decided that I would serve the refreshments at the annual staff picnic so I could serve each staff member, greet them and thank them. All of my writings and conversations with the staff now feature affirmations of the work they do with our students and families. 

Being present is so important to the credibility of a leader because it gives a sense of relational connection to our staff. So often it is the casual conversations where individuals can see that I genuinely care about their jobs and lives that make the difference. Leaders who are seen as compassionate are the ones who are seen as both personable and involved.

I am sure for every leader the circumstances are a bit different. However, the effort to become present to those you lead is an essential part of a leader’s ability to gain respect and lead their staff effectively. That desire for connection to their lives can be a powerful statement that a leader truly cares, wants to improve their work world and is aware and clear about what they are dealing with each day. It makes a leader the kind of person that others want to follow.

Gerry Vassar


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