Catalyst, Leadership, Philanthropy

Once Bitten…

My job at Catalyst focuses on working with charity leaders to help them improve their organizations by raising the bar for leadership. Part of that means that I need to be able to figure out fairly quickly what I think about the leaders I work with. My assessment of their competence, character, and fit for the context is one of the first things I do, and it forms the basis for most of what follows in terms of any funding, consulting, or other resourcing Catalyst might offer. I should be becoming something of an expert in this. Through my participation in the Arrow Executive Program it’s been confirmed that I do have an intuitive strength. I’m able to form fairly rapid impressions of people, and they tend to be fairly accurate; I also have a hard time changing my mind about people even when I probably should. In the last year or so there have been a number of situations that showed me that my intuitive impression of a leader was wrong. Some I thought were excellent turned out to be more flawed than I suspected, some I doubted have proven to be very good. My instincts let me down. That’s particularly frustrating because our work is so closely tied to leadership. When I’m wrong it typically results in time, energy, and budget being used poorly. There may be unexpected benefits at some level, but we’re not as effective as we want to be in doing what we set out to do. Good opportunities are missed. So, what am I learning through this? One; I’m understanding the limits of my strengths. It’s a bit of a strike to my confidence, but I can use it to build a better approach to supplement my impressions with some additional information from other sources, and take a little more time to be sure I’m not missing anything. Two; investing in leaders in inherently risky. Leaders are people with their own (often hidden) insecurities and struggles that can undermine their performance or make them appear weaker than they truly are. It’s just not reasonable to expect that we’re going to be right all the time. Three; I need to be more attentive to things that don’t support my initial impressions of a person. Knowing that I (stubbornly) tend to stick to my original assessment means I better guard against that becoming a problem. It’s good for me to be loyal, but not for me to be ignoring things to protect my own ego. Four; I need to continue to balance my sincere appreciation of leaders with the rigour of accountability. I can be too interested in being liked and can be drawn into someone’s confidences in a way that makes it easy for me to miss signs of dysfunction. I need to remember that my primary professional responsibility is to Catalyst’s agenda, not to the leaders of the organizations we support. How do you evaluate leaders and potential leaders? How do you guard against your own weaknesses?