You are here:

Building Leadership Skills

We often think of leadership as synonymous with executive roles but leadership skills are needed by people at all levels of an organization.  An executive needs to show courage in moving an organization in a new direction or in adjusting staffing when budget realities force downsizing.  But administrative and program staff also need leadership skills when they take action to solve operational problems only they can spot.  For an organization to be successful it is critical that staff have permission and the skills to "manage up" so that  supervisors and managers are responsive to organizational needs. This takes leadership too.

So, if everyone needs to be a leader, what can you do to further hone your leadership skills and those of others in your organization?

Organizational Strategies

  1. Define the leadership skills and behaviors that are most important in your organization. Write them down.  Post them where others see them.  Talk about them...a lot!
  2. Provide opportunities for staff to expand their skills and improve their work processes.
  3. Incorporate those skills and behaviors into your performance review process.
  4. Recognize staff when they demonstrate courage, initiative, and diligence.

Personal Strategies

If you are an executive use these strategies to develop relationships that expand your thinking, provide some perspective on day-to-day challenges and offer some impromptu therapy!

  1. Seek mentors, role models, professional pals, and feedback. Executives are often isolated and that can cause you to lose perspective and miss out on important contextual information.
  2. Fill in knowledge gaps. Everyone has gaps in knowledge about their management responsibilities, mission focus, and about working in groups with people. Make sure some of your time is devoted to keeping up on your field, on changing operating issues in areas like HR and technology.
  3. Schedule to spend 30 minutes a week reading the 501 Commons blog or visiting one of the blogs and podcasts listed in  "A well-Informed leader."  You can also find immediately useful information in our Tools and Best Practices, and Best of the Web.
  4. Consider ways that you can get out of your own way.  Many times people undercut their own capabilities. Identifying productivity hacks that will give you back time or increase your efficiency. Consider working with a coach to help you reach your goals and overcome barriers.
  5. Have you joined the ED Happy Hour Facebook group yet? It’s exactly what you expect it to be and more! There may be an in-person ED Happy hour in your community or you can organize one!

Our Resource Directory  has many articles and tools relating to leadership development. Many of the organizations recommended by nonprofits and listed in our Resource Directory also offer professional development training opportunities. We’ve compiled a list here.

Nontraditional Leadership Approaches

Increasingly, leaders are looking to define new approaches to leadership, including co-leaders, collective leadership and non-hierarchical staffing structures.
  • The Center for Ethical Leadership provides toolkits, publications, and approaches to conversations framed within their unique community-based collective leadership model.

Leadership Resources

If you are in a leadership position, consider how you can help people new to non-profits or early in their careers grow their leadership skills and prepare for increased responsibility. Bridgespan offers several tools you may find helpful:

Difference Between a Manager and a Leader

It takes both leadership and management to steer a nonprofit organization. While the terms are often used interchangeably, it is worth teasing out the differences. Warren Bennis, author of On Becoming a Leader, draws a distinction between the two disciplines.

Learn the difference

Hiring & Recruitment

In order to get the right people to join your team, pay careful attention to how jobs are designed and the way they fit within your organization. This way of thinking will help you find and retain the best people to carry your mission forward.

Hiring the right person

Affordable Professional Development

There are several affordable approaches you can take in providing staff with professional development opportunities and support for skill-building.

Read more