Ask a group of 10 people what makes a great leader and you will quickly get a list of at least a dozen characteristics. Pick up 10 books on leadership, and you will find another list of a dozen traits. Read (or watch) leaders talking about what they think makes them great and you will add more descriptors to the growing list. One which I was reminded of recently is not one that necessarily shows up on most lists: tenacity.
Because tenacity is such an integrated part of me, and because I don’t see myself as a great leader, I often forget the importance of this necessary leadership trait. A colleague reminded me of this recently, when she was retelling me of a meeting which she attended where my persistency on an issue was rubbing a “superior” the wrong way. Summarizing the tone of the conversation, she said to me, “I never knew you were evil incarnate.” And that’s when it hit me: whack-a-mole.
I am not evil incarnate, but I am tenacious whenever I believe a wrong is being done, regardless of to whom, what, why, etc., that the wrong is being done. My tenacity is not mitigated by fear for my own well-being, a crucial component of leadership tenacity.
In the situation that led to the above comment, I have been pursuing the reversal of a decision for over a year, as the original decision was incorrect. A construct had been applied which legally does not fit, and every expert asked agrees that it has been wrongly applied and needlessly detrimental. During the course of this year plus, I kept popping up, bringing new information, data, research, opinion pieces, allies, etc., all in hopes of the decision-maker finally recognizing his initial decision was erroneous.
And I keep getting whacked—harder and harder each time.
Without tenacity, it is impossible to be a successful (I’m leaving great aside right now) executive director. Just think about all of the situations an executive director must navigate where tenacity is absolutely essential (and, where, if I wanted to complicate this writing, I would argue is getting more and more essential).
- Employees: one of the jobs of an is to advocate for the organization’s employees. Employee advocacy is a key human resource function that ultimately rests with the ED. To ensure a supportive work environment for all employees—from the bottom of the org chart to the senior most tier—an ED must frequently butt up against a board, as s/he pushes for fair and just compensation, current technology, decent work space, reasonable hours, decent benefits at a fair cost to both the employees and the organization.
What I see way too often, however, is EDs who are not persistent, who try once, get rebuffed by the board, and stop. They don’t think about alternative approaches to solve the problems, with or without the board’s help, but simply let it drop. In so doing, these EDs are letting down the staff, protecting self at the cost to staff.
- Clients: while I could give multiple examples here as to how an executive director lacking in tenacity fails clients, I’m choosing to discuss the one that seems to have come up repeatedly in the last several weeks: the refusal to mandate, and then use, a protocol for collecting impact data for every program/service the organization offers. Simply put, any executive director who allows a program to continue to serve clients without having data that allows the program to know, in real time, how well it is meeting promised impact and that provides information on how to improve on delivering that impact, is running an unethical organization. Getting up to speed on impact evaluation where it has existed before requires persistence; getting staff to appreciate the output of impact evaluation (in part because it may come with additional work) requires perseverance; getting boards to use that data to make important decisions about programs and the future of the organization requires doggedness.
- Donors: you have to have had your head in the sand for a while now, not to know that the giving landscape—whether we are talking about organized giving (foundations, corporations) or individuals—has changed and continues to change. Funders have been changing priorities; individual donors aren’t as loyal as they once were; there are more options for philanthropic dollars than ever before, with different preferences as to how they when to give, the frequency of their giving, the form of their giving, their degree of desired involvement, etc. There are lots of hoops to jump through, conversations to be had, no’s to hear, calls to make, letters to write, ethics to mind, and the list goes on. Along the way, whacks will be received, even if gently applied.
- The mission: oh, the number of times I have heard staff and board members complain that their mission isn’t sexy. As if only organizations with appealing missions get what they want and need. It’s the ability to tell a good story that demonstrates a powerful impact that reverberates throughout society. It is about connecting your work with your audience’s interests. If anything about an executive director’s job requires tenacity it is this: working through the trial and error process before you land that great story—and then starting all over again with another audience until the repertoire is firmly in hand. That is until the next time a new story is needed.
This is no news, but sometimes there is value in being reminded of that which we already know, having that reality check that it isn’t “just me.”
Being an executive director is not for the faint of heart.