Leadership is a Verb, Not a Noun

Posted by Rosetta Thurman, Apr 09, 2010 4 comments

I've been writing about leadership and young nonprofit professionals for the past three years, and what I've finally come to is this: one of our biggest misconceptions about leadership is that it has something to do with a title.

The nonprofit sector often operates as if leadership were a noun. They look to "the leadership" to provide the answers, and blame "the leadership" when ideas fail or solution don't come fast enough. I've heard many a young professional talk about leaving their organization because of disappointment in "the leadership." The problem with this sentiment is that it assumes that leadership is a position at the top of the org chart and that it's the responsibility of one person (or a select few) to lead the agency to success.

That's why we use the term "emerging leaders." Because we think that until you've reached the CEO position or ascend to a senior management role or reach the ripe age of 50, you have not yet "emerged."

But what if we thought of leadership as a verb?

What if we stopped trying to limit the parameters around who is capable of practicing leadership? A leader could be the President of the organization, but it could also very well be that college intern you hire for the summer who changes the way a program is run. Leadership scholar Ron Heifetz has said that because you cannot truly predict who will practice leadership, you have to look for leadership in action by everyone involved in an organization or a sector. Ron also points out that we often make the mistake of equating leadership with authority. But leadership is not the same as authority. Leadership is not the fancy title on you business card. Leadership is what you do.

I think deep down, we know that. I think we're ready for that shift.

The trick is getting emerging leaders to see themselves as current leaders. Emerging leaders ask permission. They think they have to. Current leaders do what they know to be the right thing for the organization and ask for forgiveness later. And guess what? They rarely need it.

The so-called "leadership crisis" as it relates to nonprofit organizations is not that we don't have enough emerging leaders in our ranks, or even that emerging leaders aren't prepared to take on leadership roles once Baby Boomers begin to retire. It is that we haven't yet made the leap from calling ourselves emerging leaders to recognizing that we are already current leaders. When will we start treating leadership as a verb instead of a noun?

4 responses for Leadership is a Verb, Not a Noun


April 10, 2010 at 5:00 pm

I've been defining leadership for quite a while as aligning one's values, strengths, resources, and enthusiasms with the creation and implementation of solutions that are for the greater good. You are so right that before we critique the leaders "above" us we need to ask, "What opportunities are we (or are we not) taking advantage of to facilitate the results we seek?" (fyi, I no longer talk about "senior" leaders as I don't think anyone ever arrives as a leader and have taken a fancy to "evolving" leaders).... Great post!

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April 13, 2010 at 7:06 pm

This is such a great post - and I appreciate you taking the time to so eloquently process your thoughts and share them with everyone. Leadership as a verb, not a noun, is something I truly believe in! During my internship with the organization I am now the Program Assistant for (only one year later) shared with me the story of a young intern who respected "no" as an answer, but never gave up in finding a way to work around it. 10 years later, she became the COO of the organization (to respect her privacy, I won't say the name of the organization). Either way, hearing this story last year - when I was the "summer intern" - inspired me. I might not be the "director" or our organization, but no matter what title we have, we all should recognize the potential to play a leadership role. The group can only go as fast as the slowest runner, so just because your name isn't at the top of your program's organizational chart, doesn't mean you don't have the potential to make a significant impact.

Finally, I feel we need to take more seriously the comment that many "leaders" continue to throw around: Our children (i.e. students, interns, etc.) are the leaders of our future. Seriously, now - why are we not seeing this reality taken more into action? If our students, "young folks" and interns ARE our FUTURE, we need to find more efficient ways of investing in them and their ideas. Fresh minds in the field are priceless!

Thanks for starting this discussion...it's exciting to be a part of. :)

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April 12, 2010 at 3:14 am

This is an excellent post. An old man I deeply respect once told me that we need to be able to accept a lack of perfection with more grace. There are always going to be screw-ups and mistakes and apart of being a leader is learning to take this in stride and come up with solutions. Thanks, Rosetta. I needed this post!

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judy anderson says
March 28, 2011 at 7:50 pm

I agree--leadership entails action towards vision and opportunities. For me, leadership also involves seeing the larger picture and how an organization can move forward to be a catalyst for more inclusive action.

And, your point of not relegating leadership to the "top" is critical if we are going to build more sustainable, responsive, and thoughtful organizations.

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