Keeping the Circus Running Well (or "A Nonprofit Leader's Survival Guide")

I once attended a networking lunch and the ice breaker question was "what circus performer most describes your work right now?" Odd question, but my gut reaction was telling: "I'm the ring-master who also has to be the guy scooping poop behind the elephant." Yep, that about sums up the job of a nonprofit leader many days. It's the coolest, most fun job we can imagine and also comes with a bunch of really unglamorous stuff (can anyone say "budget constraints"?).

I've observed that the nonprofit leaders I most admire - both for their achievements and for their personal character - have five things in common. I'll share them in the hopes they bring encouragement or a pointer for fresh inspiration.

A source of strength - Most nonprofit leaders want to work with excellence, treat those around us with grace and compassion, run with a balanced budget, lead the staff and the board well. Oh, and avoid burnout. That's a tall order. And one that we cannot fulfill on our own.  I wrote a blog recently about my experiences learning that "ministry in my own strength is the dry, joyless, half-truths of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The only answer is to keep Jesus our First Love and let Him decide how much impact He will bring through our obedience." (from an article published on Christian Leadership Alliance). Leaders that I most admire have ceased striving for their own fame or success and instead trust the outcomes and impact to the only One who can actually bring it about. They go to work with Him instead of on their own and find freedom and the fruit they're unable to produce on their own. As Jesus models, great leadership - what really we should call "followership" -  starts with time getting filled up with the Father. The model of pitcher/cup/saucer/plate provides a useful paradigm as I try to navigate this truth in real life. Read more about it here

A thirst for reading - You've heard the old adage, "leaders are readers". But great leaders are readers for better reasons than attempting to be the smartest person in the room. They read because it exercises their mind. Reading pushes leaders out of their comfort zones and it challenges the way we think. What often leads nonprofits into hard times is refusing to change. Leaders cripple their organizations with phrases like, “It has always worked for us,” and “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” By the time whatever “it” is has been broken, it’s too late to correct what should have been. When you’re in a difficult season, reading can create sustainable energy by giving your mind new ways to look at a situation.

Growing Friendships - All of us are going to leave the organization we serve with at some point. Sit with that for a minute. Someday you will wake up and NOT go to work. What will you do? Who will you hang out with? Leaving an organization you've led for years is hard. It's even harder if we haven't cultivated relationships outside work. Men in particular, who are hardwired to experience relationships in doing something together, fall into believing their work friendships will remain once the work is finished or they depart from it. But rarely do these friendships make it past organizational life. This causes quite a bit of confusion for the former nonprofit leader. Furthermore, it leaves us lonely. Or, a fallout may occur in the midst of transition and the severed relationship intensifies the feelings of failure. Which leads to the next point...

Work/life integration - Forget balance. That idea is so 2005 (see Forbes). Work is life and life is work (especially for those of us with small children). It's okay for the boundaries to get a little blurry, like making the last phone call of the day while sitting through the carpool line at school. But that doesn't mean we can ignore outside relationships because of work. Or hide behind work.  I'll be honest, sometimes work is a nice break from the messy complexities of family and extended family. At work, there's a defined goal and we work pretty well toward it. No one at work has ever thrown a fit because their waffle was cut into squares instead of straight lines. And people at work don't care about my Thanksgiving plans. Plus, we nonprofit leaders tend to have a strong sense of “why,” we tend to ignore our own work/life integration for the sake of the mission.

Our most important and longest lasting relationships usually exist outside work. They can only grow when we make ourselves available. When we work constantly and have a hard time unplugging, we are unavailable to those we care about. Someone gets cheated — our spouses, our kids, or our friends — and someone is paying the price for our unwillingness to stop working. Smart leaders invest in the relationships that will be there when the job is not. The sad tale of World Vision’s founder should serve as a caution for those of us similarly compelled by a big vision. You can read the whole story on Christianity Today’s site.

Your life is surely different than mine, but nearly everyone struggles with technology boundaries. If you need some quick suggestions about how to make implement better boundaries, this article is great. 

A guide - In every story, the hero has a guide. This is true for every great leader: you need a guide as well. Guides help us see just how much we are capable of. They are encouraging and, sometimes, they are honest with the things we don’t want to hear.  We can’t afford to lead from our perspective alone. We need help. Whether it's a pastor/spiritual mentor, business coach, or just a friend with more experience, smart leaders pursue guides instead of hoping a guide finds them. 

Jesus once explained that there were two men who were both building homes. One built his house on a foundation of sand and the other built his foundation on stone. When the storm came and caused a flood, the house with the sand foundation fell apart but the house built on the rock remained standing. Jesus tells his disciples that his words are the rock to build their life on, and he also promised this: the storm is coming. Storms happen. We don’t know when and we don’t know their severity, and now is the time to build our life and our leadership on a firm foundation.