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Imagine Canada

Strong Charities. Strong Communities.

Level-Up your Leadership

Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Guest Writers
Human Resources
Boards & Governance
Monique Newton

In the nonprofit and charitable sector, we spend a lot of time thinking about the issues we are tackling – and the infrastructure and resources we need to tackle these issues – but do we spend enough time thinking about, discussing, and practicing, good leadership? Leaders in the nonprofit and charitable sector are often working on what Ken Wilber and Alan Watkins refer to as “wicked problems”. Wicked problems are complex; multi-dimensional; have multiple causes, solutions, and stakeholders; and they cannot be solved just once – they must be solved over and over again. Poverty, social justice, equal access to services, and climate change are examples of wicked problems.

Given that there is a lot at stake in our work – people’s lives, the health of the planet – it makes sense to think about and discuss how we approach our work as well as the substance of our particular organization.

Whether we are in a ‘big L’ leadership role such as an executive director or in a ‘smaller l’ role somewhere else within an organization, we are always in a position to model leadership behaviour and approaches. What can we do to become more adaptive as leaders, to ‘level-up’ our skills as key facilitators, change agents, and enablers?

There are approaches that we can practice to become more adaptive as leaders. An adaptive leader is someone who can look “from the balcony” and is practicing a broader and more layered understanding of their self and the other humans with whom they are engaged in team-building and implementing their organization’s mission.

Adaptive leaders often demonstrate an openness to new experiences and to their own growth. When we are genuinely interested in empowering the people we work with, we tend to model positive, resilient, grounded behaviours.

Work from the Inside-Out

As sociologist Jack Mezirow pointed out, emotional intelligence is often far more important than a person’s IQ. We probably know this intuitively, but do we practice it in reality? Emotionally intelligent leaders are more adaptive leaders because they have the capacity – and the discipline – to be reflective about their inner world and thus are less likely to be reactive. They are more interested in enabling those around them than being the most powerful person in the room. In the complex world of nonprofit delivery, the adaptive leader is ideally practicing their art with discipline. That is, regardless of any perceived and real constraints, every moment is an opportunity for what Bill Torbert calls “transformative learning” and for working from the “inside-out” rather than the “outside-in”.

“Self-awareness really does matter, and so does consciously managing our habitual thoughts, feelings, and responses.” (Resonant Leadership)

When leaders are self-aware and self-accepting, it sends a message to their staff and colleagues that they are well-grounded and resilient, and that they have confidence in others. 

Grow Up!

Philosopher Ken Wilber uses a great term when he speaks about adults transforming themselves into adaptive leaders: he calls it “growing up”. Cultivating mindfulness will help us become more self-aware and it will enhance our effectiveness and ability to engage people in a meaningful way. A great way to become more mindful is through meditation. It has been shown that mindfulness-based meditation triggers the parasympathetic nervous system – this is the rest and digest response and the opposite of the fight or flight response that is induced by stress. Even simply lengthening our breath – inhaling for 4 counts and exhaling for 4 counts – begins to calm our mind and body.

An outcome of practicing self-awareness and mindfulness is that we tend to develop a more mature and complex way of responding to circumstances and people – instead of reacting based on our ideas about the way things and people should be, we are more likely to respond meaningfully based on insights about our own biases and patterns that may be influencing our perception. Remember that adaptive leaders are not interested in being the smartest, most powerful, and dominant people in the room, they are working to facilitate and empowers others to more effectively deliver their organization’s mission and goals. 

It is an ongoing practice that can be modeled to others – with a lot of empathy toward ourselves when it feels like we are not quite getting it right. Adaptive leaders focus on strengths and solutions and they understand that everyone is more effective when they have some resilience to organizational and personal setbacks. Adaptive leaders are also open to learning – not just taking leadership courses or workshops now and then but the everyday learning that comes from being awake to what is going on around them.

To recap, adaptive leaders:

  • are emotionally intelligent and self-aware
  • have strong empathic skills
  • can be bold and take risks
  • are well-grounded
  • seek feedback
  • know their own strengths and can recognize and nourish others’ strengths
  • have a sense of humour about themselves.

If you are interested in how you engage with others as a leader, and in developing and validating your own practices, write a vision and goals statement for yourself as a leader and share it with someone you trust for their input and feedback. And follow up on it.


About the Author

Monique Newton

Monique Newton is a Senior Manager with the WWF Arctic Programme, based in Ottawa. She has a Master’s in Public Policy and Administration and is currently working on the Integrative Peacebuilding Project with the Conflict Studies Master’s Program at Saint Paul University. She teaches yoga and trains others to become yoga teachers. 

Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.


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