The larger and more complex the organization, the shallower the top leader needs to be.
(How’s that for a provocative opener?!?)
In any charity, school, business, city, or country the first chair leader (Executive Director, Principal, CEO, President, etc.) has two essential aspects to their role; internal duties and external duties. The internal duties mostly relate to the effective operation of the entity, they are strategic and often complex. They require insight, experience, and sound judgment. I think of it as the deep end of leadership. Most leadership training is focused on developing these abilities.
External duties have more to do with being the symbolic representative of the organization to the stakeholders, constituents, and general public. Being the “face and voice” that shows up at key events, says some inspiring words, shakes hands, and generally flies the flag on behalf of the entire operation. Being good at this part of the role involves a more generic skillset of relational abilities and emotional intelligence. To some it looks like shallow work, but it is essential to any impactful organization.
In small charities the first chair leader is likely to spend a lot of time and energy on deep leadership matters. They may be the issue expert, program manager, primary fundraiser, director of finance, and HR department all at once. With few others to share the load the leader has to be intimately involved in every strategic aspect of operations.
As organizations grow that changes. More people, more resources, more projects and programs; more than any one leader can effectively manage in a hands-on fashion. The internal (deep) demands eclipse the capacity of one person. Delegation becomes a crucial skill and things happen without the Executive Director’s involvement or even awareness.
And the external (shallow) duties should grow simultaneously.
More donors, more events, more media, more speeches, more photo ops.
Eventually the role of the top executive becomes more spokesperson than technician. They have a trusted team of professionals who (preferably) have greater skill and insight than the leader does in their areas of responsibility. The leader’s role comes more facilitative within the organization as they rely on others to get the right done the right way.
Of course top leaders should never abandon deep leadership entirely. They need to retain their ability to probe the operations and programs of the organization and be able to provide more than mere bullet points when questions and issues arise. Their credibility and that of the charity depend on them being more than a talking head.
It can be argued that the most recent federal elections in both Canada and the United States have seen leaders chosen for their shallow end skills. Both Prime Minister Trudeau and President Trump were and continue to be critiqued as being little more than media sensations with little comprehension of the deeper aspects of their roles. (Interesting that they represent somewhat opposite wings of the political spectrum). The relative validity of those assessments is not essential to this post. What is relevant is that both countries voted for leaders whom they saw as exemplifying the qualities and aspirations of the people, not leaders renowned for their policy insights.
Image does matter.
The point is this: First chair leaders are both the symbolic and the strategic point person for their organizations. They need to be both shallow and deep. Insiders (boards, employees, committed volunteers) tend to undervalue the shallow/symbolic aspects of leadership which are crucial to the growth and sustainability of the organization. Those aspects should be constantly considered in their hiring, development, performance review, and priorities but they often aren’t.
How do you approach and improve both the shallow and deep aspects of your leadership?