Nonprofit leadership has got to be the toughest job in the world. You have to be a big-picture visionary with a close attention to details who also has an incredible ability to initiate and grow relationships.
Nonprofits do such great work. And leaders seem to know what they’re doing. So many leaders struggle with wondering why they aren’t measuring up. They see the requirements that people make of them:
- the staff expectations,
- the needs of the people they serve,
- the never ending task of fundraising, and
- the demands of the board (and even individual board members).
And those requirements are often compounded by the incessant voice-in-our-heads, demanding us to do more and treating us with more contempt than we’d ever let anyone treat our best friend.
So is it any wonder that at some point in our leadership journey, we start questioning our ability to lead? We keep trying the next new formula or reading the latest leadership book, hoping it will give us the piece that we are missing.
When we usually have that missing piece already. What we don’t have, is a map.
A Map for the Leader’s Journey
The good news is a map exists! In years of studying leadership – in academic research, actual leadership experience, and in coaching others – I began to discern a common path. So we have created this into a map called “The 4 Quadrants of Leadership.”
Having a map is powerful. It gives you the relief of knowing that you’re not the only one struggling with meeting all the demands. No matter how “together” the other leaders you see look, they’ve gone on this journey too.
And it gives you the encouragement of knowing that, while you maybe stuck, you are not necessarily stuck for life.
As you look at the map, you’ll see two axes: the requirements axis (external to internal) and the resonances axis (confident to unsure). Every leader we’ve worked with has external and internal expectations of their performance. And every leader has a range of full confidence where everything resonates and seems in sync and a complete lack of confidence where everything seems to be falling apart.
Quadrant 2 Leaders
Most leaders get stuck in Quadrant 2. They have started in Quadrant 1 full of confidence and fully focused on the expectations of others. Excited to have a position of authority, they act out what they’ve seen the other leaders around them do.
But at some point, they realize, people aren’t following them. Or they realize that even though people are following, they themselves aren’t liking the techniques they’re using.
In both cases, their confidence decreases and they throw themselves fully into Quadrant 2. They consume leadership podcasts, they devour books, they go to seminars and conferences. Their focus is still “out there” – looking for what other people say will work.
And because they’ve gone through the copying others part of Quadrant 1, they have a better idea of which leaders and teachers are safe to follow and which ones are just selling snake oil.
So they try this initiative on their team or that initiative. They implement 7 Habits, then Getting Things Done, then Fish Sticks. Aspects of each of the techniques work, but none seem a perfect fit. So they try on the next “leadership suit.”
And in the process two things happen: their team develops a thicker skin to the management “fad of the month.” And the leader loses even more confidence. The book covers and session descriptions say this formula will work. And they come with case studies that prove it does work for others. So, if it works for others but not for them, they feel they must be broken. Possibly even failures as leaders.
But even if their attempts are failing, they are not failures.
They just need to check the map and start making steps toward Quadrant 3
Quadrant 3 Leaders
Leaders stuck in Quadrant 2 have a choice. They can keep seeking the next “perfect” formula to “fix” their work and leadership and be forever stuck feeling like failures. Or they can see their lack of certainty for what it is: an invitation to stop trying on other people’s leadership suits and to find out how their is personally tailored.
The personal tailoring happens in Quadrant 3. All the demands are still on them. People still expect them to be super human. But their inner critic’s voice shifts a little. They start being more open to their own demands on themselves. Not entirely open, because they know they can get it wrong. Often.
But they start examining how they respond to situations. They start paying attention to what they seem to excel at. And they start learning to piece together the leadership traits and activities that actually work for them.
They may realize that the entire Getting Things Done system of living life by lists simply doesn’t work for them – no matter how amazing people say it is. But now, rather than beating themselves up for getting it wrong, in Quadrant 3 they start looking for the aspects of Getting Things Done that do work for them.
Perhaps it’s the rule to always have an action item for every single thing you put on a list. So they take that one bit from Getting Things Done and add it to their own leadership ability.
And they look at the people they’ve followed. They learn how different people operate and see what aspects of those people will work for themselves. And what aspects will never work for them. At least, will never work easily. For example, they may have followed a leader with amazing project management skills. But as a verbal expressive leader, they may not have that skill set. So they choose to learn more about project management. Or they choose to add a more detailed project manager to their team.
For most of us, spending time in Quadrant 3 is the hardest. Oddly, this learning about ourselves feels unnatural. It can definitely help to have a guide.
But as we learn how we’re created and to lead in concert with our abilities and traits, we free others up around us to lead and work as they were created. They reduce their own stress – both from internal and external demands. And they free up their team to excel at their work.
Which moves them into the focused level of Quadrant 4, a place where they
- know how to follow others and to identify those worthy of being followed;
- know how they best learn and to identify those best learning from; and
- know how they themselves operate, when to flex in uncomfortable areas, and how to build a team around them with differing abilities.
They use all they’ve learned as a compass to help them chart the path forward – both their own path and the path of their organization. And they are able to help people through that process.
Where are you at in the journey?
Where do you feel you are in the journey. Let us know in the comments. And don’t be afraid to be honest – each quadrant has its strengths.