Check Your Moral Compass

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 20th, 2012 in Thoughts & Commentary

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So, what are the challenges of being a leader in the first part of this century?   I am sure that every article, presentation, talk, etc. written/presented in the first quarter of a new century that addresses “what it takes to be a leader” (and, no, I did not do a search) at some point says “these times are different:  we have a different environment, different values, different needs, etc.”  And I am saying the same thing:  these are not your grandmothers’ times anymore—or for most of you, even your mothers’ times–and the challenges of being a leader of a nonprofit today are greater than they have ever been before.

I say this not by way of excuse, please hear that, as the last thing I want to do is give any reason/thinking to excuse yourself from being the best possible leaders you can.  I say this by way of understanding:  you must understand the climate in which you are leading for failure to do so is a leader’s Achilles’ heel! No one leads in a vacuum; failure to acknowledge that space in which you are leading—well, you will be sucked up by the vacuum along with the rest of the unwanted crumbs.

There are a number of key elements to our current environment that affect you as a leader and the results of your leadership.  You must be mindful of them, their implications and potential influence on what you do, how you do and how you are perceived as doing.  I’m going to list them and then go back and play out some scenarios for you.

  • We have more nonprofits than ever before, making the nonprofit sector an increasingly competitive marketplace.  With approximately 1.6 million nonprofits as of August 2012—and that is absolutely a fungible number thanks to a variety of factors—there is competition coming at you from many different directions.  And not, anymore, just from nonprofits, as LC3s seem to be gaining ground.
  • Nonprofits are under more scrutiny than they have ever been before—and while this is not necessarily a bad thing, it is something which we can never be forgotten.  There are the official overseers—the attorneys general, many of whom are intensifying the magnification with which they view us; there are the semi-official, only because we have empowered them to be so, watchdog groups, such as Charity Navigator and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance; there is the unofficial, but important group of the media, who can make or break a nonprofit with just one headline; and there is, perhaps, the most important unofficial group—the public, which, unfortunately, too often loves poking around in everyone else’s little piles of dirt while ignoring the mountains of good.
  • Social media:  nothing stays local or quiet anymore; we can no longer make mistakes or missteps in private.
  • Technology changes the “places” of our work—telecommuting, always or sometimes—and how we work—email in lieu of meetings or phone calls, information overload leading to paralysis, etc.
  • Our workforce is more diverse than it has ever been before, bringing equally diverse values into the workplace.
  • There is a diminishing expectation that people will behave ethically, morally, even legally.
  • There is an ever expanding number of people for whom self trumps all; others, organizations, society, all come later

Taken together, the standard characteristics of a good leader interplay with the conditions of her time, and interact to impact her ability to lead and be a leader.  Let me demonstrate this by sharing some real life tales.

The stories of this past year, from Penn State to Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure to the University of Virginia to what seems like dozens of state legislators feeding their own pipelines of nonprofits to the hundreds of local headlines from across the country have demonstrated a remarkable lack of honesty and transparency, while also great manipulation.  This is a deadly combination that, rightfully, brought a great number of “leaders” down this year.

Thanks to social media, there was no hiding from any of these scandals or from the results of failed leadership.  We had pundits galore providing commentary, even before all the facts were  known.  The blogosphere was uber alive, people were tweeting for resignations, firings, reform, etc. YouTube played its part.  There was no going quietly into the night for anyone, as it was impossible not to know about any of these events.

The American Red Cross, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, yet again repeated behavior it did after 9/11 and Katrina, and continues to collect money for Sandy relief after it is needed (using the somewhat misleading terminology of  “for victims of disasters like Hurricane Sandy”).

How many times in one decade does an organization need to be told that its practice is illegal and unethical before a lesson is learned?  And how many times before the American public finds other disaster relief organizations to trust?

Barclays and JP Morgan Chase, were among those who showed us the importance of leaders addressing the geographic spread and value diversity of workforces.  The ability to have multiple sites linked through technology and not through face-to-face contact, to have employees work virtually and not to rub elbows with your colleagues, showcase the challenges of leading a diverse workforce.  There are some things that are simply wrong—abusing children, trampling on the public trust, thinking you are above the rules, misusing others’ money, and the list can go on.  With the seeming reduction in the number of individuals having a clear, strong, moral grounding of their own, the message on right/moral/ethical must come clearly from the leader down, with unmistakable definitions and unambiguous—and enforced—consequences:  this is how we operate—or else.  This is necessary whether a leader leads one, ten, hundreds or thousands.  It is the leader’s job to make his organization’s ethical expectations clear and to not waiver from adhering to them.  Doing otherwise will take you to the most slippery of slippery slopes.

To suggest that there is a minefield waiting around every corner for leaders in this century is only a slight exaggeration.  But if you anticipate the possibility of a minefield, you can prepare and protect your organizations and yourself.  So many of these 21st century hazards are beyond a leader’s control—the reach of social media and technology; the great diversity in our workplaces; the increasing absence of functioning individual moral codes.

There is, however, one thing over which you do have control, and it is the very heart of being a great leader.  It has perhaps never been more needed than it is today:  a great leader ensures that there is a strong moral and principled culture in her organization, that it is embraced, shared and protected by everyone associated with it, and that it brings real consequences to those who dare not subscribe.  With this in place, social media can say what it will for it will all be good, a diverse workforce finds a common denominator, technology links a workforce bonded by a strong set of beliefs, overseers get what they want to see, and people see what they don’t expect to see—a functioning moral compass in a well-led organization.   And all because you were a leader fit for the 21st century.


The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.