Nonprofit leadership is a bizarre thing. I’ve been through some interesting challenges.
Once, a few years ago, I had a work situation go all sixes and sevens. Belly up. Fucking ridiculous. I had honestly been despairing and half-heartedly looking for work for almost nine months at that point, but not with any real ambition or plans. I had begun to look at graduate schools options (again!), and I knew I wasn’t going to last until my initial goal date.
See, things were bizarre. There were a number of meetings in which I found myself thinking this organization really just exists to reduce enough harm that no fire alarms will be signaled. And that our parent company did not want us to be effective. One project that I completed included one word which had almost twenty years ago been a buzzword to mean “radical progressive trouble maker.” My boss delayed the publication of that work for almost three months dithering about whether it was too scary to publish, even though the purpose of the project was at the center of our mission, AND experts in the field had reviewed and given high accolades and unconditional agreement of the sentence and use of said term.
Then, my boss asked me my option about strategy one day, and I offered it. Not tactfully, because I struggle with that, but honestly and not harshly.
A week later in my annual review, I was criticized for offering opinions on strategic planning. I realized the next day that I was being punished for having seen what she had refused to see previously and being right. She wanted to be the idea generator. Oops.
After I gave notice, I made a really stupid decision. I went to the boss’s office and asked her if we could talk. Part of the reason I was leaving was I truly believed she wants the best for our parent company, and I had some observations to share. Honestly, after I’d been fussed at for being right strategically, what made me think that conversation could happen?
So, I sat down and talk with her. And I cried, because that’s what I do when I’m angry or sad or tired. I cry. And then there was a fire drill, which ended our meeting. And my boss went to HR and claimed I’d yelled, screamed and threatened her. She maintained that lie until the day I left.
Gaslighting – she would look at my face and try and tell me that I’d threatened her. Gaslighting – telling me that my concerns were all based on my own mental health. Gaslighting – pretending that my annual evaluations for the last two years had been anything but “exceeds expectations” because she came to realize I saw her moments of inability or deceit.
That was when I stopped caring. I started showing up and pretending to care. I got a lawyer who ensured I would not lose anything when I quit.
And then I moved jobs, because I was young, and it was easy to find other work (pre-crash… things were different).
And my next boss right after that? A micromanaging, yelling, terrified bundle of anxieties who could not reign in spending or sign off on a thank you letter. A guy who thought his personal layout style was some kind of standard, and who once looked me in the face and said that my experience with a board of directors never happened.
Somewhere along the way, even as I kept telling myself that people treating me badly does NOT mean I “asked for it,” deserve it, OR could prevent it by being a better person, I began to lose confidence in my abilities. Lost confidence in my abilities to function as a human being, in normal relationships. Internalized the conviction that I was like a jellyfish – never hostile or meaning to hurt anyone but with cells that AUTOMATICALLY shoot out poison if brushed against.
Because why else would I have repeated struggles with bosses? (I’d struggled with previous bosses, but never this bad). CLEARLY it was me. CLEARLY I was the pattern here, the commonality, the factor that could be changed.
I don’t have a happy resolution to this story. I’m still working through my feelings. BUT I have some skills and tools that are helping me. That’s actually why I wrote this post: to put down in writing what might be helpful for someone else.
(1) Someone else’s bad behavior is NEVER your fault.
Gas-lighting is always the choice of the person telling lies. Never justified and never acceptable. Responding to someone else’s pain with gas-lighting is a second level of evil that pounces upon a vulnerability simply because it’s available. As the person being mistreated, it’s not actually possible to “nice” a bully into reforming. If you are bullying someone else, it’s not their fault that you have bad reactions.
If you’re over a certain age, it’s your responsibility to learn when your feelings are overwhelming and find healthy, nonviolence, nondestructive ways to feel them, not let them fester or ignore them.
If someone is treating you badly, you didn’t ask for it, cause it or deserve it. I don’t care WHAT you did – they are choosing to respond badly. You did not make them do it.
(2) Don’t blame your team for your failure to lead.
Micro-managers who cannot complete their own tasks are not bad at their jobs because their subordinates fail to instill confidence. If you’re the leader, than LEAD. Stop waiting for your employees to magically understand what you want or become stronger. If they aren’t finishing the task, ask yourself (or your team!) what other tools they need and PROVIDE THEM. IF it happens repeatedly, and they show no interest in improving – let them go. and DO NOT punish the competent because you’ve known a few lazy slobs. Learn to distinguish between the two. And if you can’t – stop being a manager and become a doer, a developer, or self employed. Discernment, project management, articulation of vision, goals, expectations and clear measures of success, are all basic leadership skills.
If you don’t know how – get help. Take a course. Find a coach. Read a book. Ask someone.
(3) Patterns are not always patterns.
Randomness happens. Look out, prepare, be smart. But sometimes shit happens. Sometimes you think you’ve found a healthy work environment and you end up with a painful, mean colleague. Sometimes you win the lottery: not often. Sometimes, two abusive bosses in a row does not mean that you were a terrible employee, sometimes it’s means life is hard, and you were unlucky.
After that bad year, it would be easy to diagnose myself as broken, or the entire nonprofit industry as a waste of time and full of abusive, incompetent, power hungry bullies. But that isn’t true. People go into social work and nonprofits because they want to make the world better. People are broken, mean, sinful or stupid, but they are usually doing their best. And it’s trite but true – you don’t know what pain or burden they are carrying.
My last boss? The mean micro-manager? He was in pain all the time from gall bladder stones. And he was so worried about the organization we worked for that he scheduled a laparoscopic surgery even though he was a very high risk patient who should have planned to get traditional surgery with the six weeks of recuperation that entails. He literally lost his life because he wasn’t willing to go an extra mile to get the best care for himself. He died from surgical complications because he treated himself with the same pushy, mean, harsh demands that he made of us. It’s impossible not to have compassion for that kind of misery. May he rest in peace, really.
(4) Sometimes, Patterns are Real.
There IS a leadership crisis right now. Maybe it’s the generational conflicts been boomers and millennials. Maybe it’s the pressure of a slowing economy and the natural tightening of nonprofit budgets as a result. Maybe it’s a failure of npos, boards, funders, and grantors to prioritize or invest in leadership development, but there is a crisis.
Too many micromanagers.
Too many bosses with zero training.
Too many who don’t know much about casting a vision, delineating goals, or characterizing and describing expectations.
Too many executive directors who walk around panicking that they are going to get fired for a few wrong decisions.
Too few mentors.
Too many organizations running on shoe strings so small that they can not afford continuing education or coaching or even workshops and webinars.
Too many expensive webinars and conferences not suited for shoe string budgets (yes – FUNDERS – free workshops make a difference. If you do not invest in those who research and develop training courses, there will be none available).
BUT we can make a difference. I’ve had several great conversations recently, with leaders at the Georgia Center for NonProfits, an organization entirely dedicated to strengthing NPO leadership, and other consultants and coaches who spend sixty hours a week each strengthening leaders. I’ve seen grant applications that offer more than 5% or 10% budget for “overhead”. I’ve seen challenges to the “overhead vs. services” model of judging a nonprofit budget.
The pattern? We need to do more. Find those exciting voices. Listen. Add your voice.
What’s your prescription for better leaders?