Most of us (nonprofit leaders) have either taken courses or read a lot about the basic meat and potatoes leadership skills we need to effectively do our job. I’m talking about strategic planning and goal setting, budgeting, communication, the solicitation of major gifts, marketing, etc. But few of us ever take the time to discover how our personal or individual  styles might be effecting those we lead or those we meet in our role as an agency leader.

Self-awareness and the ability to use our soft skills more effectively could greatly improve our leadership capabilities. Maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships with others is critical to effective leadership.

In my work with nonprofits I have come across four distinct types of leaders. Each type has certain tendencies which impact how others see us and interpret our actions. It also has an effect on how we see those around us — and may impact our emotional intelligence. While it’s true that each leader is unique and may not fit perfectly or completely into any one category, extensive research has shown, nearly all nonprofit leaders (Executive Directors / CEO’s) will have a primary leadership style closely related to one of four distinct types.

For each category, leaders display certain characteristics and traits resulting in varying advantages and disadvantages. If you want to improve your leadership skills and help your agency make a greater impact, you need to understand how your personal leadership style impacts those you lead, and how you are viewed by those around you. While you probably can’t significantly change your personal leadership attributes, you can be smart about how you interact with others by being aware of how you are perceived and learn how to use your most valuable attributes most effectively. 

Discover Your Leadership Style

The first nonprofit leadership style is “The Captain”. This leader is a hands-on, get things done person, often adept at raising funds, and known as the person who can “make it happen.” He/she has a tendency to exercise a high degree of control over the agency and very little goes on without their knowledge and approval. The Captain is tireless, dedicated, individual, who will do just about anything to help the agency succeed.

This style is very effective for small and start-up nonprofits. Unless the leader performs many of the tasks in these agencies, many wouldn’t get done at all. Efficiency is generally very high for this style in a smaller nonprofit, but can be limiting as the agency grows.

The downside? The Captain may have challenges asking for help, with the exception of smaller, administrative or “backroom” tasks. This type of leader tends to limit sharing of information, and take caution before engaging the full power of his team through collaboration, delegation, and empowerment.

The second style is The Champion. He/she is the local nonprofit “rock star” and their agency is well-known throughout the community. They are the individual with an incredible gift for fundraising and recruiting volunteers. Whenever they tell the “story” of the agency, people listen and want to get involved. The Champion is passionate about the cause and well versed with the clients’ needs. They are extremely adept at managing donor relationships.

This style is very effective for small and start-up nonprofits. In the beginning stages of a nonprofit, raising funds and building the initial set of relationships is critical in order to serve the needs of clients. The Champion excels at identifying individuals to help support the cause.

The downside? The Champion may struggle as the organization grows. Needing more resources than one individual can realistically acquire, the Champion has a tendency to burn out trying to be all things to all people. They may struggle to share vital relationships and initiatives with others, which could limit potential growth.

The third leadership style is The Guardian. This leader might also be referred to as “The Understated Rock Star”. They have all the characteristics of The Champion described above, but to a lesser degree, and bit of the Captain as well. They may have a tendency to play their cards a little “closer to the vest” than others, but still try to provide the staff and volunteers enough direction and room to get their jobs done and grow professionally. The Guardian usually has an effective and supportive board and knows how to use it fairly well.

This style can work well in both large and small agencies since the leader delegates frequently and empowers others to do their best. Key staff and volunteers have an excellent opportunity to grow and develop themselves into effective future leaders.

The downside? While the Guardian tends to share more information then the Captain, they likely prefer to have topics a bit more “fully cooked” before bringing them to the board and/or staff for discussion. This can be limiting in that some board members or staff may have ideas and/or input that could be very effective if gathered earlier.

The final leadership style is “The Director”, also referred to as the “Balanced Leader”. This is a “no surprises” leader who prefers to be involved (high-level) in what is going on at the agency, but they are definitely not a micro-manager. They trust their team but insist on frequent feedback, dialogue, and open communication.

This style tends to work well in larger organizations, but it can be effective in small agencies as well. The Director generally excels at delegating tasks, and is very focused on keeping the organization moving towards the mission. 

The downside? Some Directors may not have the same level of open charisma and passion as demonstrated by the Champion. This could be a challenge in starting an organization — as it is critical to getting others involved from the get-go. It may also make it more difficult to “sell” the vision to potential donors, staff, and volunteers.

Now, it’s time for true confessions. I recently took the Leadership Edge style assessment and I came out as a Director. It makes sense to me and probably would to those I have led in the past. Relying on a team to help execute goals has always been a large contributing factor in my strategy. I tend to be task-oriented, with a strong focus on the vision, and getting the organization, staff, board, and volunteers heading in the right direction.

So, how about you? What is your style and how has it impacted your leadership? How can you leverage your personal strengths and attributes to build a better nonprofit?

The Leadership Edge Assessment was designed specifically for nonprofit leaders. The quiz will help you discover your personal leadership style and learn more about how you can equip your nonprofit for greater impact.