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Dianna Sutton's - "Philanthropy Corner"
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Freedom Riders: Leadership Is a Risky, Dangerous Business

Exercising leadership is risky. Even dangerous. And more "rogue activists" are needed in order to effect positive change. Philanthropic leaders need to have the courage to challenge their organizations and push the boundaries of the status quo.

Leadership is about putting yourself and your organization at risk and being willing to engage in experimentation. That was the message delivered to more than 200 corporate, private and community foundation funders attending the Florida Philanthropic Network's 2012 Statewide Summit on Philanthropy, "Philanthropy in the New Social Economy," who were challenged to expand their leadership in order to help communities face their most difficult choices.

The nonprofit sector is no longer operating in a temporary state of emergency but rather what has become a standard mode of operating that requires new leadership, perspectives and tools. In today's world of economic instability and globalization, leaders need to take more risks to increase their effectiveness. Conference speaker Martin Linsky, co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates and longtime faculty member at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, states: "Leadership is about disappointing your people at a rate they can absorb. It requires having vision and the ability to inspire others to have bigger dreams and achieve the extraordinary."

Linsky makes a distinction between exercising leadership versus exercising authority. He describes leadership as a verb, an activity and behavior rather than having a title or position of authority -- although one cannot be successful without authority. Leadership is about pushing against the current reality, familiarity and status quo to see new possibilities. It involves risk because of the threat of loss, potential alienation and difficulty of change. Thus, the only way you know you are exercising leadership is when you meet resistance, says Linsky.

There is a distinction between adaptive and technical work required of leaders, he suggests. Technical work involves people in authority using their expertise to solve current problems. Adaptive work is about deciding what is essential and disregarding the rest, which requires people to give up existing habits and loyalties. Instead of just forging ahead, leadership involves taking smart risks by making thoughtful and deliberate choices about what is essential and what isn't. Adaptive work leads to organizational transformation.

According to Linsky, leadership skills can be learned and leaders can be trained, nurtured and developed. In order to be successful, leaders need to have clarity of meaning and purpose outside their personal self motivations. They need to be involved in something they care deeply about and be clear about their purpose and what they want to accomplish. Other leadership qualities include separating from your role by observing, being analytical by focusing on the human dynamics versus the merits of an issue, and thinking systematically. Leaders are willing to take an interpretive stance in order to realize change because they understand that change occurs in reflective and courageous dialogue. The paradox of leadership is being optimistic while being realistic at the same time.

Other conference speakers discussed philanthropy's challenge in the new social economy and offered suggestions for nonprofits to face current and future challenges. Allison Fine, co-author of "The Networked Nonprofit," advised that nonprofit organizations need to work like networks in order to stay relevant. Fine suggests organizations "do what they do best and network the rest" by using social-media tools more effectively to engage people in raising awareness of social issues, affecting legislation and providing services. Fine suggests experimenting with social media and points out that nonprofits must be willing to risk giving up control.

Gara LaMarche, senior fellow at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, closed the conference by challenging everyone to "get their revolutionary spirit back." He stressed that we don't need to wait for institutions to effect positive social change because "rogue activity" can make things happen. He made an appeal to all the funders to take innovative approaches and make investments in demonstration projects and experimentation. And he pondered where our contemporary heroes (leaders) are by asking, "Who are our Freedom Riders today?" referring to the civil rights activists who challenged the status quo and local laws enforcing segregation in the 1960s.

The Freedom Riders are an example of the power of ordinary people who have the courage to change the world. During this Presidents Day holiday observance, we are reminded of one man and his leadership in the founding of our nation: George Washington. Leadership is about one person being brave enough to step forward and take the risk to inspire others to see the possibility of a better future.

Dianna Sutton is a nationally certified fundraising executive with more than 20 years of fundraising and nonprofit management. She is currently the president and CEO of the Community Foundation of the Florida Keys and can be contacted at dsutton@cffk.org.