The Organizer #25 | Leadership

How do I lead if a I don't feel like a leader? Leadership and power take all kinds of different forms. You can do it your way.

Leadership and power aren’t the same thing

Leadership and power are funny things. They’re related, but they aren’t the same. People who really want power are often people who won’t use it wisely. Meanwhile, people who don’t want power are often the ones we’d trust the most.

Power is especially complicated in the social impact world.

On the one hand, power helps people create change, raise support, and lead groups. On the other hand, power often comes from — and reinforces — inequity.

So what happens when you have power? What does it mean when you are an Executive Director, a manager, or a person of influence in your world? Honestly, you might mistrust yourself. You might question your role. You might feel uncomfortable in your own skin.

It’s okay to mistrust power

We’re supposed to want power in our culture. We’re supposed to be motivated by fancy titles and the ability to tell others what to do. People who want more power are “ambitious”, “driven”, and “visionary.” People who want less power are “unmotivated” and “underachievers”.

It’s okay to not want power. If you are one of the many people in a nonprofit leadership roles who didn’t strive to be there, don’t worry.

Lots of people feel uncomfortable in leadership roles. They might feel like frauds or imposters, or like placeholders waiting for a “real” leader comes along.

It doesn’t make them bad leaders. In fact, it might be the opposite.

The difference between leadership and power

Notions of leadership and power are so closely connected that we sometimes use them interchangeably. But they aren’t the same thing. They really, really aren’t.

Leadership is the ability to chart a direction when the map is blank and to motivate people to move forward. Leaders have a direction in mind and can persuade people to act.

Power is the ability to decide what you want to happen and — usually — to impose the consequences of those decisions on others.

You can lead without power. You can exercise power without being a leader.

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of leadership, maybe you just aren’t motivated by power. That’s not such a bad thing.

What to do if you don’t feel like a “leader”

Does this sound familiar? You don’t feel like “leader” because you …
… don’t desire power
… feel unworthy
… being a leader isn’t part of your identity

Just because you didn’t seek leadership or power doesn’t mean you don’t have it now. It doesn’t mean you are less competent than people who sought it out. It doesn’t mean there is someone else more suited for your role.

On the contrary: if you care about the impact you have on the people around you, it probably means you feel accountable to your community. That’s a good thing.

Very few people working in this field plotted out their career paths in kindergarten. It doesn’t matter where you came from and it doesn’t mean you are unworthy.

The important question is, what will you do with the power you have? What you do next matters more.

If you don’t want to wield power over other people, then don’t. Leadership is about what you do, not what you force others to do or experience.

Leadership is plot, not character

We need to abandon the idea that leadership is performed by leaders, and that leaders are certain types of people. We need to shake the idea that “leader” is a lifelong personality trait, as if some people can’t rise in a crisis and other people never, ever need a rest.

It doesn’t matter if you never saw yourself as a leader. What matters is that you have an opportunity to do something right now. You can have a positive impact, and that matters. There are things you can do that will make a difference. Your effort can create hope. You can ease pain, discomfort, and fear with your actions.

That’s what matters.

It’s okay to talk about leadership and power

There are sad moments that come with leadership. You turn away clients when there aren’t any more hours in the day. You say no to incredible projects because your organization just isn’t equipped to run them yet. Great candidates get rejected when you fill a job vacancy.

It’s okay if those choices weigh on you. It means you understand — and care about — the consequences of your actions. That’s a good thing.

We are suspicious of power in this field for good reason. Power has the potential to harm. It’s healthy to be concerned about what it can do and how we might use it.

Be open about the ways leadership and power are tangled up for you. Name the paradoxes and grey areas.

You can be a different kind of leader.

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