Can We Learn 21st Century Leadership Skills By Looking To The Past?


Yesterday Now Tomorrow Signpost Showing Schedule Diary Or Plan



In over twenty years of work within the non-profit sector, I have had the undeniable pleasure of of working in one of the most diverse sectors. An industry where the common objective, regardless of location or specific services was to stand in the gap and provide oftentimes that intangible gift of visibility to people who are so frequently invisible.  My career has afforded me the great fortune of working with well funded, well established organizations as well as those fledgling startups with little or no funding, but who had been brought to life out of need and love of those willing to stand in the gap to provide for that need.

Time and time again, I have been witness to the amazing power where vision met generosity and the impossible became possible;  where the world felt right, everyone from the executive director down to the receptionist feels like they make the world a better place on a daily basis. Where I developed the value of treating clients like worthy consumers and dignity of the person is valued above whether a contract is renewed.

I have also experienced the pangs of loss; from failures to secure funding for programming, to simply not communicating a vision compelling enough to ignite community engagement. I know what it feels like to be on the layoff side of a merger and working in a toxic environment not fit for the mission an organization was designed to carry out. Ironically, in many cases non-profit organizations survive despite themselves.  All for the greater good, right?

Like all companies, these organizations met the challenges of growth within a framework that accounted for both the need to provide direct services while ensuring financial viability.  Leadership in the non-profit sector requires not only the anticipation of demands from or shifts in funder(s) priorities, losses of funding, changes in constituent priorities, in addition to swings in the political landscape. Not to mention the loss/gain of key staff including that dreaded moment when a board of directors chooses what is best for an organization at the expense of those who founded it.  It is through this amazingly diverse and complex lens, I view the world and it’s working systems .

As a strategic thinker with the Clifton Strengthsfinder themes of Input, Intellection,  Learner; in addition to being a problem solver and simply desiring to contribute to this discussion in a meaningful way, I have spent a significant period of time reflecting on the leadership skills which are being championed for 21st leaders, for-profit and non-profit alike, I am transported back in time to the early 90’s while working at AID Atlanta, an AIDS Service Organization. Like most AIDS service organizations in those days of the heights of death and dying of the epidemic, leadership at all levels of the organization-and everyone was a leader, required the types of 21st century leadership skills described by thought leaders. Strategic/Creative/Systemic thinking, comfort-ability with ambiguity and uncertainty collaboration and networking skills, the use of horizontal and vertical development processes (this was simply the way I came to understand professional development and for years believed, everyone did it this way), and it was always “relationship-centered”-what mattered most was relationships. It was a time of building up in the face of devastating losses in the middle of a crisis.

Unfortunately or fortunately, with the advances in medicine that brought the much needed stabilization and relief from the ongoing crisis, organizations shifted their focus; leadership became compartmentalized with a “management” focus and the “we’re all in this together” spirit fell to a strict hierarchical system where decision make was reserved for the directors. The paradigm resulting from that sense of urgency created by crisis gave way to settling in for the long haul. Non-profit managers, directors, and leaders in AIDS service organization modeled their counterparts in the corporate sector in the new paradigm. Which was standard operating procedure for most if not all community based organizations who weren’t in the throes of crisis. Much like the dismal state of customer service provided these days, service provision has become an act of muscle memory, lacking the investment, innovation, and creativity which were once their keystones.

What is it about operating within a framework of a crisis or as we are learning now,an environment described by the army acronym VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) which necessitates our thinking about leadership development and its skill sets, which quite frankly seem like the kind of skills we would want irrespective of shifting circumstances? Obviously management processes and the use of particular skills over others will be impacted by circumstances. What I am referring to is the type of strategic/creative/systemic thinking, the emphasis on shared decision making, in the spirit of collaboration and networking, all conducted in an environment where relationships are valued and each individual participates in a developmental process which combines horizontal and vertical approaches. What was unique about the people who were coming together in communities to form organizations in the middle of the AIDS crisis which that organically developed that very skill set?

Is there something, inherent in struggle or if you prefer, volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous environments that simply drive us to that better part of ourselves? Can we gain insight by looking at those early years in the AIDS epidemic and find the answers to the looming questions about leadership development in the 21st century.  I believe we can, and I welcome the opportunity to explore these answers and many more with you-if you are willing.

I remain




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