Non-Profit Leadership: Leading in the Observer Role

Diverse group of business people/coworkers in a team building session.

In my daily experience as a non-profit leader I find that the number of daily day-to-day issues presented to me are quite diverse. Most days are somewhat predictable. Others are filled with many problems to resolve. However, there are days when I am completely blind-sided and taken unaware. I recognize that how I react and my responses to those varied situations makes a significant difference as to the environment I create around me.  

As a leader we are viewed carefully to see how safe we are, how we use our power and position, how we respond to stress or adversity and what kind of impact we will have to those around us. Often that initial reaction to a stressful situation, to someone who makes a mistake or to just the small frustrations make a huge difference in our capability to lead.

One of the tools we have taught in parenting is how to use the observer role. This prevents a parent from reacting poorly because of a misunderstanding of what their child is really thinking, doing or saying. Often our poor reactions are due to being caught off-guard and legitimately understanding what is happening in particular situations. 

As a leader the observer role is essential to keeping an open mind and finding good regulation when presented with difficult situations. It is an intentional posture of not personalizing the stressful events but rather taking the time to assess situations from a very cognitive place in our brains. It means we are primarily using our cortex to ask ourselves questions, doing healthy self-talk, staying focused and not reacting in fear, anger or anxiety. Staying in the moment with good judgment and a reaction that is controlled brings both relief and stability in a relationally healthy way.

The observer role is a discovery and learning posture that keeps leaders from quick and possibly faulty judgment where we can create dissonance within our spheres of influence. It also gives us time to get all the facts, listen well, communicate accurately, and resolve issues with clarity and compassion. Staying back just a bit can make a huge difference to our effectiveness as leaders.

Sometimes we do need a break from it all after any number of successive situations cause us to feel the intensity of leadership. Leaders need to also observe their own stress levels and responses. If we are having trouble with being objective we may need to take some time to regulate so we can come back into our leadership roles with clear, focused and supportive relationships that will allow those we lead to partner with us in confidence and security. Good leaders are good observers and that will lead to better outcomes of all those interesting moments each day when our leadership capacity is tested.

Gerry Vassar


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