Three dimensions of transformational leadership

I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes truly effective leaders in the social change sector. There are people who’ve devoted their entire careers to the question, and I don’t presume to their erudition. But lately, I’ve been reflecting on three key dimensions of organzational leadership that have really helped me understand organizations I’ve been involved with over the years.

External relations leadership

External relations is the classic, outward-facing dimension of leadership. It’s the one we often mistake for the whole ball of wax. External relations is about charisma, storytelling and selling the organization to the world at large. It’s a vitally important dimension of leadership, especially in the nonprofit sector, where donors and grantmakers often give based on emotion and relationships. Many nonprofits are founded by leaders who are strong on this dimension of leadership.

Management leadership

This is the internal-facing “make the trains run on time” function. Management leadership is what builds systems and processes; it allows organizations to execute consistently, with excellence and at scale. Few organizations can grow or be successful over the long term without developing strong management leadership. Leaders who are strong at management are often very different personalities than those who excel at external relations–they tend to be more introverted and detail-oriented. Many management oriented leaders are found in COO roles.

In many nonprofits, the top two people are a strong external relations leader and a strong management leader. This can be a pretty effective leadership model for some organizations, and is far preferable to a single CEO trying to perform both roles.

But if we stop with just these two leadership functions, we overlook something critical to the long term health and success of an organization: the leadership function that is focused on taking care of its people.

Nurturant leadership

Leadership is not just about strategy, sales and management, leadership is motivating and supporting people so they thrive and excel. It’s great to have a charismatic leader out front, and a management leader who can build and refine the internal processes. But someone has to be focused on taking care of the organization’s people as whole human beings. This is not an “HR” function; it’s a core leadership function.

Nurturant leadership is this dimension of leadership–and, unfortunately, it’s often overlooked–and consequently one of the biggest barriers to long-term organizational excellence.

Lots of organizations have a strong ED/COO combination providing external relations and management leadership. But these organizations sometimes have a tough time retaining talented staff over the long haul, because they are missing third leg of the leadership stool: a strong nurturant leader.

“But isn’t this the CEO’s job?” you ask. Well, it’s certainly the CEO’s responsibility to make sure the organization has sufficient nurturant leadership. But many CEOs struggle with this leadership function–particularly CEOs who are focused on external relations. External relations leaders are charismatic and visionary, but they are often ineffective at nurturant leadership for several reasons:

  1. Being outward-oriented means you’re out of the office lot. There are so many meetings to go to, donors and clients to pitch, speeches to give. External relations leaders are often on the road so much and in so many meetings with stakeholders that they don’t have the focused time it takes to nurture their teams.
  2. The more visionary and charismatic the leader, the more intimidating they often are. It’s hard to nurture people who are a little bit scared of you.
  3. A certain degree of narcissism often goes with the territory, and while it’s not unhealthy per se, it does tend to interfere with the empathetic demands of nurturant leadership.

Similarly, many management leaders struggle with this as well. When you are focused on building systems and processes, it is easy to slip over the line into caring more about “the system” than the people that must operate within it. Overall, though, I’ve seen a lot more people who are successful management/nurturant leaders than people who combine external relations and nurturant leadership.

The biggest lesson for organizations, though, is to explicitly attend to and elevate nurturant leadership as a discipline co-equal to external relations and management leadership. More on this in a future blog post.