Successful Traits of Nonprofit Chief Executives

Nonprofit chief executives shoulder a tremendous responsibility, often with far too few resources. Last week, our column discussed the opportunities and challenges of for-profit chief executives becoming nonprofit chief executives. This week, we highlight the most successful traits we’ve seen in the leaders we work with.

  • Self-Awareness

The maxim “know thyself” is true. Nonprofit chief executives who understand their strengths and weaknesses and the people and processes they need to be successful, build teams and create structures that work.  It takes an authentic leader who is willing to be vulnerable and admit what they don’t know or don’t do well. The leaders who recognize those aspects of themselves thrive. They are living their purpose, leaning into their strengths, and creating dynamic teams.

  • Elevating Others

We love seeing nonprofit chief executives allow team members to shine. When leaders celebrate the talent around them rather than be threatened by it, the morale, culture, and effectiveness of the organization and its team, flourish. Hiring the best and brightest and being okay with not always being the smartest in the room is an admirable trait worth recognizing.

  • Board Partnerships

Effective board governance is at the heart of healthy nonprofit organizations. The most important relationship in any nonprofit is that of the board and its chief executive. Nonprofit leaders who tend to those relationships and see their board as a strategic asset are going to be highly effective. The leaders who hold their boards at arm’s length are limiting the potential of the organization and its impact.

  • Honesty

While truthfulness may seem like table stakes, we often find leaders who shy away from speaking the truth or their truth. Sometimes, they want to avoid conflict, so they soldier through situations or relationships without saying how they truly feel or think. Sometimes, they tell half-truths or omit select information rather than be fully transparent. Sometimes, they deflect or use “alternative facts” to shift conversations or blame, especially if they believe their leadership will be questioned. In the end, they create the very thing they are trying to avoid – damaged relationships and reputations.

  • Strategic Mindset

Nonprofit chief executives solve problems every day. They must function at both macro and micro levels as they navigate the complexities of their operations. To be effective, they must see possibilities that do not yet exist. Having a strategic mindset, and clearly communicating what they envision to stakeholders, partners, donors, and employees, is a powerful attribute.

What leadership traits have you seen in the nonprofit chief executives that you admire?

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