Makings of Great Leaders

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on March 5th, 2010 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary

1 comment

Recently, my brother became the CEO of a rather large, international, publicly traded company.  And when I received my first e-mail from him over his new signature, I was a little surprised to see that he was still using the diminutive version of his name.  So, I shot him an e-mail back saying I would have thought he’d now switch to his “real” name.  His response came back equally quickly, stating, “God, no.  Imperious, egocentric corporate cultures are the hobgoblins of hurting companies.”

My brother and I have clearly taken very different career paths, but the worlds in which we travel are not so very different, as witnessed by his comment.  He has spent much of his career turning “hurting [for-profit] companies” around and then handing them off to new, permanent staff.  I have spent a fair amount of my career helping nonprofits become stronger organizations in order to maximize their ability to fulfill their mission promises.  But like my brother, I have found that it is “imperious, egocentric” individuals and the cultures they create that undermine nonprofits’ good work.

When I hear of things having gone wrong at nonprofits—the kinds of things that make headlines—I’m always struck by how incredibly “stupid” the act was:  obvious conflicts of interest, misuse of raised funds, embezzlement, failure to pay the IRS, and the list goes on.  My immediate question, sometimes to myself, sometimes out loud, is:  was this person/board stupid or arrogant?  And the answer always is arrogant.

How do I know this?  Because I have seen too many people, the brilliant ones as well as the not quite there ones, who want to be really successful at their jobs do their homework.  They find out what they need to know to run their nonprofits the “right” way so that they can get on and fulfill the mission work they signed on to do.  They ask the questions about restricted dollars and understand, from the gitgo, what can and can’t be done; they understand the importance of complying with all of the rules and regulations, filing the right papers, paying the right taxes.  They understand that they are responsible to their clients and the public and that earning and maintaining their trust is paramount, and they want to do it all well.  And doing it well has nothing to do with being smart or stupid; it has to do with being honest, understanding the rules and playing by the rules, because you know that no matter how wonderful you are or your organization is, rules must be obeyed.  Smart, not stupid.

But there is, however, a cohort of individuals who have risen to–or put themselves at–the top of their org charts that know all of the rules, know how the game is supposed to be played and yet choose to go their own way.  This is not stupidity; this is arrogance.  This is arrogance that is so consumed with self that it thinks it impervious to being caught or punished and cares not about the consequences of such behavior to the clients and public whose trust has been betrayed.  This is arrogance that is so blinding that it cannot see the eventual downfall to self and the organization.  It cannot see that s/he is leading a hurting company.

I am a huge Jim Collins fan; he got me on my second reading of Built to Last. So, I periodically go to his website to see what new things he might have posted.  The home page currently opens (and may have for quite some time) with a series of four quotes, two of which strike me as key ideas that those who suffer from a large dose of arrogance should ponder, as should those who employ these arrogant leaders or have elected them as their peers at the board table.

Greatness is not a function of circumstance.  Greatness is largely a matter of conscious choice and discipline.

Humility+will=Level 5.

(Level 5 refers to the highest level of leadership.)mr. burns

Discipline, conscious choice/free will and humility, all present together, are the characteristics of a great leader and, in turn, what will build a strong organizational culture.  Arrogance has no place in that equation.

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.