In confronting reality, empowered nonprofit leaders build trust
This article is part of a series on trust-building for nonprofit organizations.
I didn’t really want to write about confronting reality.
In the past month, we’ve continued to experience multiple mass shootings and collective pain related to the losses of the pandemic. How much more painful can things get if we were to bring even greater attention to “reality”?
So my reality last month became… no blog writing. Bit of avoidance around bringing my voice out at a time when I felt there was nothing I could offer.
As I’ve explored Stephen Covey’s trust-building behaviors of leaders, I’ve considered how these elements of trust might apply to the content organizations develop and the relationships they build with clients, donors and their communities. [Blog main page]
I got to this one – Covey’s number 8 – and I thought… this one has many times been reduced to “don’t avoid the hard stuff.”
On top of that, I’ve taken in enough Abraham Hicks to have come to understand “reality” is subjective. So why is confronting reality considered an important leadership behavior? Particularly if people may be unable to agree on what “reality” is?
Sorting through reality: why we avoid acceptance
Of course so much human activity is entirely rooted in what we call “reality” – in what as a collective we view as a problem requiring a solution. We can see that a natural disaster is reality in that the tornado comes, the flood waters surge, the flames of the wildfire spread. We see that people are killed, hurt, displaced, subject to hunger or disease. Physical infrastructure is damaged and rendered unusable where before the reality was you could drive across that bridge.
So, in a state of reality response, people begin to take action. They mobilize to rescue others from the flood waters or the fire. They set up shelters where people who are displaced can stay warm, sleep, and get a meal.
I give an example of a major natural disaster, but of course, non-profit leaders are likely to be compelled to respond to many types of events and situations that cause unease or worse within their organization or community –
- The death or serious illness of a staff member or board member
- A major financial blow to the organization, like the loss of a major funding source
- The dismissal of a staff member or multiple staff members
- A local tragedy, perhaps an act of violence that deeply affects the community in which the organization works
- The discovery of criminal activity within the organization
- A significant breach of trust occurring within your organization/team
- Trends that point to the need for major organizational change
Reality is that which is evident to each of us. That which resonates with our deepest values. Based on what our senses sense and our characters respond to.
This might explain why some can learn of a racially-motivated murder and understand it as a matter of the deepest societal urgency requiring us to find and use our words and our individual and organizational actions, while others see this event as an individual tragedy, or even somehow a crime that was justified.
For me it is a daily practice to try to accept and continue to offer my small gifts as the world appears ever more so to be a crazy knot of tragedies and opportunities, suffering and hopes, gross abuses of power and acts of massive generosity.
When faced with realities that don’t align with a leader’s priorities or desired trajectory of progress, even an ethical leader can be challenged to overcome his or her very human response to avoid acceptance.
Acceptance of reality and effective nonprofit leadership
In an October 2021 Harvard Business Review article, Scott Edinger frames acceptance as critical to being in the strongest position to make changes and to lead others forward.
He says, “the amount of time, effort, and energy I see wasted by leaders as they argue and fight about reality is astonishing.”
He outlines three kinds of acceptance critical to effective leadership:
1. Accepting results.
Not accepting or willfully fighting a result won’t change it. A leader will accept results and stay in a strong position to make changes that can prevent future failure.
2. Accepting circumstances.
Giving up control of that which you never had control over to begin with. Managing your thoughts and feelings to set yourself up to lead through difficulty.
3. Accepting your failures, and those of others.
Be prepared to let go of the time, effort and energy wasted in a fight against reality. Don’t set yourself up to be a hero. Responding to a difficult reality can better be done from a place of humility and from the powerful place of being human, with your strengths and your weaknesses.
Emotional empowerment in the face of a difficult reality
High-performance coach Brendon Burchard, advises leaders to accept when there is a negative occurrence or an unpleasant state of things and to work at not absorbing it. This puts a person in a more empowered state to respond to the “reality” and to consider how leadership can be shown through a focus on shaping a better future.
It isn’t always easy in the face of a difficult reality to hold steady emotionally.
When a situation is extremely triggering it can be easy to absorb big emotions around it. How do you stay just dispassionate enough to ensure you are able to lead through this kind of difficult situation? And stay healthy?
As a nonprofit CEO, an initial emotional self-check-in sets you up to better prepare to identify the guiding words and actions your staff and your community expect from you.
Four ways nonprofit executives can prepare to confront reality
- Confront reality by first taking a short time for observing, listening, and empathizing. Build awareness around the emotions and concerns people might be processing.
- Develop a response that meaningfully aligns with who you are and that also responds to the emotions and concerns of others.
- Stay in a space of empowered meaning – at least for yourself, internally, until you figure out the best way to bring your unique position to the troubling reality. Others are expecting you will have answers and that you will be able to show them some possibilities for a brighter future.
- If it is obvious that your organization should release a message in response to an event, avoid making a statement about your organization, or your organization’s program work. Make it about the people who are distressed and who you know want to hear from you.
Addressing a difficult reality with your best effort is to acknowledge the distress, emotion and confusion and to offer a way forward. According to Covey, confronting reality is not easy, but it is vitally needed to build trust.
Content types for trust tag #8 – confront reality
- Posts and statements that acknowledge a difficult reality, and offer a glimpse at the brighter future
- Messaging that acknowledges an organizational failure with the inclusion of a statement for time, space and ideas to address it
- Stories of people deeply affected by a difficult event – and guidance on how people can help make change – even if it is not through your organization
P.S. Are you interested in building trust with your audience? Let’s work together on a content strategy for your organization!
P.S.S. Art to lift the nonprofit executive spirit!
Visit Charleston Farmhouse near London – a “trove of constant inspiration” and the gathering point for the Bloomsbury group.
This video tour shows great detail of the interior.