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A Sad Leadership Story

Now that I teach administration I have the luxury of observing and commenting on repeating occurences in organizational leadership.  In both my direct leadership background, as well as in my board volunteer service I have experienced what I will comment on today, that of board members taking on leadership roles, moving from volunteer to professional status.  I’m particularly motivated to write about this, as one of the organizations that I formerly led recently made this decision, and I’m deeply concerned about what will result from it.

How does it happen? 

What I have observed is that the stage is set when external conditions shift dramatically and affect an organization’s bottom line.  These conditions can range from shifts in emphasis of major funders, to emerging demographic trends and political changes, or shifts in general audience behavior.  And, regardless of the professional leader’s efforts to inform, warn or explain these changes to the board and other professional staff, h/she is not believed because an air of crisis has evolved.  Yes, some leaders are better at explaining and informing than others, and do succeed in getting in front of the impending crisis, but sadly I have more often observed the opposite.  In these latter cases, almost always an atmosphere of everyone having the answer results.  Chaos ensues.

A struggle for who has the right answer often results in a change in executive leadership and the board then decides, sometimes after a failed search, that one of them would best serve the mission of the organization.  I can think of only one case among scores where this worked.  In all others, the results could be characterized as disastrous to only mildly so.

Please, board members, don’t do this.  Yes, sometimes professional leadership may be lacking, but all in all, professionals have skills, understanding and mastery of their craft and connections to the wider field that you don’t.  You may be highly successful in your field, but you are because you have professional skills in that field. These skills do not transfer in their entirety, as the vagaries of the arts are quite ideosyncratic.  Challenge and empower your professional staff.  Ask, probe, demand, but don’t take over, as in 99% of cases, you will fail: the organization and yourself.

Thanks for listening.







  1. I think the chaos could be diminished if more orgs did succession planning. While some do, I believe a majority don’t. Having a plan for when the chaos hits always makes dealing with it easier.

  2. Israel Briggs says

    You are a talented writer.

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