4 Ways to Practice Leadership While Also Empowering Your Team

June 2022

Leaders in the nonprofit sector encounter increasingly complex responsibilities in the face of many unprecedented changes, including those around modes of work, as well as mounting challenges to the societies they aim to improve. At the same time, diversity has broadly increased in the sector, which can create opportunities as well as flashpoints for employees with contrasting social and leadership styles. Amid this growing complexity, nonprofit leaders should aim to evolve their management approaches to retain the investment of their staff. Simultaneously, managers must take even more care to accommodate and nourish the aspiring leaders in their ranks to achieve their full potential in an increasingly turbulent sector.

As nonprofit leaders experiment with more flexible leadership styles, they should also work to empathize with and adapt to the perspectives of aspiring leaders in their organizations. Managers should also practice leadership development approaches that empower these employees and influence cultural changes around outmoded expectations for leaders. Here are four recommendations for leading your organization with strength, while also creating an environment for your employees to thrive as leaders. 


1. Recognize the ways that your leadership habits can take away space from others. 

Your organization's work demands strong leadership in all programmatic and administrative areas, from the strategic planning process and board relationships, to program evaluation and crisis management. It is particularly vital that you lead boldly when confronted with difficult and contentious issues, such as labor disputes, reputation threats or criticisms of your organization's lack of diversity. While these challenges serve as vital moments to enact your leadership skills, however, they can also be fraught with interpersonal conflict. In these moments, you also bear a responsibility to make space for other, less-empowered voices in your organization and cede some decision-making power to those affected by the issue at hand, such as employees of color or sexual minorities. If you handle these situations without tact, you may end up making them worse by asserting power at the wrong time.

Keep an eye on leadership habits that usually help your employees but that can become harmful if you overuse them or do so in the wrong context. For example, leaders who are very talkative can excel at selling their organization's vision to donors and deliver compelling stories about their clients' needs. On the other hand, exercising this habit can take away conversational space from other employees who lack the authority or opportunities to air their grievances and perspectives on changes they wish to see in the organization's operations. 


2. Recognize how stakeholders might view you and other potential leaders differently based on demographics. 

Leaders of different genders continue to face drastically varied expectations at work on a number of issues from dress styles to childcare duties, salary negotiations and personal care facilities, among many others. Expectations around leadership approaches can also vary significantly, particularly for how managers of different genders balance practices of authority and deference towards other stakeholders in the organization. Women in particular may continue to face expectations of giving more deference to board members and other leaders in their organizations than men are. This expectation can hinder incoming leaders from making their mark on an organization through bold action, as well as for established leaders to make transformative changes to the status quo.

As a leader, you should recognize these attitudes and take strong measures to confront them on both interpersonal and organizational levels. When you witness board members asking non-male leaders to act more deferentially or shelve strong policy proposals, start a discussion about these framings and the possible motivations behind them. If you come to believe that an employee or leader in your organization is being treated discriminatorily, call it out and make it publicly known that you will not accept it. In the longer term, take steps to codify nondiscrimination policies in your organization's bylaws and create spaces for board members and staff to discuss expectations for leaders of different genders.  


3. Shift away from the mindset and practice of the leader serving as the fulcrum and safety net of the organization. 

Nonprofit leaders often fall into the trap of acting as a one-person band at their organizations and picking up all the slack when work is left undone by others. While this habit creates many deleterious impacts for the organization and leader, one of the strongest is burnout for the leader which takes their time and energy away from practicing effective, impactful leadership in other areas. Leaders may have received extensive education and training, but spend far too much of their time on lower-level tasks that waste their skillsets and lower their value to the organization. Unsurprisingly, women can be especially at risk of being pressured into taking on work that is far below their pay grade and expertise, which can further entrench hierarchies and negative expectations such as those previously discussed on authority. You should model a shift away from this culture for your employees, particularly those with leadership aspirations. 

You can combat this trend by fostering a culture of equal responsibility for each employee's own work and refusing to accept tasks out of fear they will not get done. Practice saying no to people's requests in low-stakes situations and set clear boundaries around the higher-level work that you must accomplish before assisting people with their responsibilities. Also, break the habit of relying on your passion for the mission as a motivation to overwork and burn yourself out. Try to balance your drive to make social change with support from your organization that can keep you performing well and working effectively even when you do not feel the most motivated.  


4. Consider giving time off to aspiring leaders to have their own personal planning retreats. 

Aspiring leaders often lack the time to adequately plan for their professional development and career goals as they continue to be swamped in their day-to-day work. Without opportunities to sharpen their visions and map out long-term goals,  these employees can become frustrated with their current positions and perform below expectations. You can help break this cycle by giving an employee an extra Monday or Friday off so they can use an extended weekend as a personal planning retreat, a hyphenated getaway during which they can realign their career goals and set out concrete professional development steps. These retreats can be highly effective in clarifying a prospective leader's future and setting them on a purposeful path, which increases their motivation to perform well in their current positions and build on their skillsets. 

Ultimately, you can only do so much to mold aspiring leaders and prepare them for an ever-changing sector; however, you can provide the best environment and support for them to grow as leaders and effectively practice leadership. Focusing on this allows you to avoid frustration and burnout, while also working to foster a new generation of effective leaders. 



Additional Resources and Readings: 

CEO Racial Equity by the Chronicle of Philanthropy

Leadership with Kishshana Palmer by the Small Nonprofit Podcast

4 Leadership Strategies For A Virtual World by Nonprofit Pro

Supporting Grassroots Leaders, Not Just Programs by Philanthropy News Digest

The First 100 Days for Female Leaders by Stanford Social Innovation Review

Read more about strategies for personal planning retreats in my book Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership.


About PMA Nonprofit Leadership 

As a firm, PMA Nonprofit Leadership is constantly developing content and programs to help you in three distinct ways.  The first way is to help you be a thought leader in the nonprofit sector by producing weekly content through our podcast Your Path to Nonprofit Leadership. The second way is through individual coaching, training and our unique Mastermind Nonprofit Leadership program. The third way is to help your nonprofit organization through support of its strategic planning, board & staff development, and fundraising. Through our exclusive partnership with the Institute for Philanthropic Leadership, we also  guide aspiring nonprofit leaders through the virtual New Development Professionals cohort training program, as well as the annual Leadership Gift School, now entering its 10th cohort season.  Let us know how we can help you! Join our community by signing up for our free resources here, and schedule a call if you'd like to learn more about ways we can help you on your journey to nonprofit leadership.