Insights
5 min Read
July 12, 2016

Searching for Authenticity: What it means to lead a nonprofit in 2016

The 2016 Presidential race has surfaced a number of interesting articles and conversations about the authentic voice of leadership. What does it mean to be Presidential? Can you be a leader and still be “real” in your presentation of self? Of course you can.

Dan Pallotta’s May 2016 TED Talk, “The Dream we Haven’t Dared to Dream,” surfaces a long-overdue and, to me, more interesting point about the way our personal lives—even our personal humanity—can suffer as we pursue ambitious visions. His is not a discussion of voice, tone, or style: it’s a discussion of how fully and authentically we live our lives. 

The search for authenticity

Taking a sabbatical the year Big Duck turned 20 (in 2014) provided an opportunity for me to take off my CEO hat for several months and focus instead on other roles that are also a part of my identity. I reconnected with myself as an artist, as a writer, and as a volunteer, for instance. By stepping away from work for several months, I had to let go of many threads I had been gripping tightly at work and entrust them to my staff.

Coming back to work after my sabbatical, I felt clearer than I’d ever been about my own professional voice, talents, and shortcomings. It was much easier than I would have imagined letting go, and terrific to come back to a business where my staff’s contributions regularly outshine my own. My sabbatical reinforced the value of working with my staff in ways that emerge from each of our strengths, and hopefully reduce my own tendency to be overly directive or demanding.  

Books like Karissa Thacker’s, “The Art of Authenticity: Tools to Become and Authentic Leader and Your Best Self” or “Louder than Words: Harness the Power of your Authentic Voice” by Todd Henry highlight the necessity of knowing who you really are and bringing your full self to every aspect of your life.

Leaders who behave badly

When senior-level people commit to projects that require super-human acts without asking or even thanking the staff that will make them happen, problems start to bubble up below the surface. They humiliate and browbeat their own teams in front of donors, consultants, and others, all in the name of “good work.” They can be competitive, cruel, even abusive, to people who are there to serve the same mission.  

While I doubt these people would admit that they sacrifice being kind, compassionate managers in order to advance the cause, their vision does not seem to include a role for themselves as a leader that’s as generous to the people who work for them as it is to the communities they serve. Some of these people are the nicest, most fun people you’d ever want to hang out with after work. So why do they seem like different people depending on the context?

I wonder if, on the way “up,” some people feel they must be tough in order to stay focused and achieve their goals. Perhaps this is a way of managing what is often referred to as “impostor syndrome“? It’s as if they are playing a role, rather than finding a truly integrated, authentic way to lead.

Over time, the humanity and compassion that likely drew them to the nonprofit sector has become less accessible.

What inspiring authentic leaders look like

In 2014, Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker accepted the Civic Inspiration Award from Ballet Hispanico with a video that starts off in typical talking head form and then transforms into a jubilant celebration of dance as he cuts loose and begins to dance through the halls of the Foundation.

The video shows an unexpectedly playful, joyous, and human side of one of the nonprofit sector’s most influential leaders. Does that diminish his power or the respect he’s afforded? Hardly. Just about everyone I know who’s watched the video says it has earned Walker admiration. He’s clearly not afraid to express his own playful side. Who doesn’t want that in a leader? 

True, it’s just a video. But Larissa MacFarquhar’s 2016 New Yorker article about Darren Walker and the Ford Foundation paints a compelling portrait of a man not afraid to flatten hierarchy and have fun while pursuing nothing smaller than conquering inequality.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but many of the inspiring and most beloved leaders I have the good fortune to work with or meet are also game-changers and rule-breakers like Darren Walker. They are people like Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Shifra Bronznick, Barbara Dobkin, Sister Paulette LoMonaco, Rochelle Shoretz, Gloria Steinem, to name just a few.

Just recently, I was lucky to facilitate a meeting with staff members of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Their president, Scot Medbury, joined our discussion after we’d been exploring a few changes with significant implications for the Garden. I don’t know Scot very well, so I was curious to see how he’d respond to the ideas we’d generated before his arrival.

Scot immediately dove into the discussion with openness, warmth, and humor. Within minutes, he was aligned with his staff, building on their ideas and playfully exploring how far they might be stretched. His participation and attitude in the meeting was entirely additive; we lost no time building his buy-in.

Afterwards, I commented to one of his staff how open, agile, and collaborative I found his participation. “Scot’s one of the most friendly, engaged leaders I’ve ever worked with,” she commented, “and one of the nicest people. He brings his whole self to work.”

Finding your true voice as a person and becoming an authentic, integrated leader is no small task. Add to that, motivating your staff to do their best work when it might not look exactly like what you would do. But if we’re all striving to make positive contributions to the world, shouldn’t that be reflected in the way we treat each other every day, too?

It’s clear to me that I still have a long road ahead on my journey to be the best and most authentic leader and manager I can be.  If you see me, please help me stay on track by sharing with me stories of the people who’ve inspired you, and join me! I could use your company. 

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