Reflections on Executive Leadership and Transition Data over Fifteen Years

Published by Nonprofit Quarterly, March 27, 2017, written by Byron Johnson, Jeanne Bell, Paola Cubías: 



Over the course of fifteen years, CompassPoint Nonprofit Services conducted four national studies of nonprofit executive leadership. The first three reports were called Daring to Lead, and were produced in 2001, 2006, and 2011.1 And then in 2014–15, as part of a multifaceted project to explore our role in the executive transition management (ETM) field, we did another national gathering of data, specifically about executives and their most recent experiences of executive transition.2 Each time, we have noted how little things are changing with respect to leadership demographics and dynamics—at least in the broad swath of community-based organizations that have been our primary research audience. Over those same fifteen years, the field of nonprofit leadership development (of which we are also a part) has grown extensively as evidenced by the breadth of leadership programs nationally, the emerging prevalence of methodologies such as leadership coaching, and the growing investment by foundations. Taken together, the stagnant data and evolving leadership discourse raise concern about whether as a sector (and as the leadership practitioners serving it) we are moving quickly and intentionally enough toward alignment of our leadership aspirations for the sector with our leadership reality.

In The Evolution of Executive Transition and Allied Practices, Tom Adams lays out how the field of ETM has evolved over twenty years of practice and where he and other experts see it going next.3 Adams argues that even as ETM practitioners have strengthened and integrated their approach to organizational consulting—by adding succession and financial sustainability planning, for instance—they nevertheless encounter some seemingly intractable systemic forces: “These challenges—the elephants in the room—include the lack of diversity among nonprofit executives and boards; the bias toward unrealistic leadership expectations; underperforming or challenged boards; and the ongoing struggle to finance an overburdened sector.”4

As we improve the way we work with or within individual organizations, we also need to consider how we can confront and finally overcome these systemic “elephants in the room.” While there are many levers for change, this article looks at the disconnect between what’s happening in most organizations and what the leadership discourse has been for at least ten years now with respect to the potential for leadership itself to change—that is, for fundamentally reconsidering who leads community organizations and how they lead them.

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