Executive Directors Are Superheroes, But They Have Their Kryptonite

by Joan Garry

Just like Superman, Executive Directors have their kryptonite. And it’s not a lack of resources… or a disengaged board.

As I write this, the biggest movie in the world is the superhero film, Avengers Endgame.

Now, I’m not the biggest action movie buff in the world, but I do know a superhero when I see one. And Executive Directors are society’s superheroes. There is just no doubt in my mind.

They go toe-to-toe with their opponents on national TV.

They fearlessly meet with elected officials to influence change.

They lead with a level of determination far beyond those of mortal men and women.

But just like Superman (and yes, I know he’s not in the Avengers), Executive Directors have their kryptonite. Their (potentially) fatal flaw.

It’s not a lack of resources… or a disengaged board.

No, those are obstacles for sure. But this problem is actually harder to overcome. And it affects Executive Directors regardless of level of performance.

And it’s not an addiction to hummus either.

Want a hint?


A quick story to help illustrate.

My E.D. client worked very hard to create a five star board retreat. My role was to assist in designing and facilitating.

To that end, I created a detailed evaluation form with a 1- 5 scale (5 = homerun). I really push for folks to do more than circle numbers and we got lots of feedback.

Did I show her the feedback? Yup but not verbatm – as a summary synthesis. And that’s because I don’t want them trying to match the comments to a specific board member.

Now, in this case, the evaluation was very strong. The retreat was a success. And yet, all my client can do is count and analyze all the 3s and below and then try to see patterns in the comments to determine who might have been the “3” board members.

My client is totally missing the point. And cannot help herself. She has encountered her kryptonite.

And what is it?

A thin skin.


You certainly want to avoid an Executive Director with a huge ego at all costs. A big ego overtakes a leader’s motivation to pursue the organization’s mission.

But I rarely see an oversized ego as the kryptonite of an Executive Director. No, it’s thin skin.

And there are three key ingredients.

1) We’re Pleasers

This is true as a general rule. I know I was one during my E.D. stint at GLAAD.

We tend to see the glass as half full and are in fact working like hell to fill the glass for those we serve.

But think about it. In an E.D. job there is quite a long list of people to keep happy. Board, volunteers, big donors, small donors who complain, clients, maybe that high performing staff member with diva tendencies. Or the person who has offered to host your next house party and the request for “white wine only” is just the beginning of the demands.

You get the idea.

2) We’re Caretakers

Caretakers are drawn to E.D. gigs. After I became an Executive Director, I started seeing a shrink. I highly recommend this if you are able. She asked, “Why are you here?” like every good shrink does. Well, I said. I tend to take care of people – it’s kinda how I roll. But I just took a new job as a leader of a gay rights organization and now I feel like I am taking care of all the gay people. Can you help me?

She was indeed very helpful and put the work into some context. But let me tell you. It is the perfect job for a caretaker and a pleaser.

Criticize a pleaser and you’ll see what I mean. Suggest that a caretaker isn’t doing a good job caretaking and voila.

Thin skin.

3) The Board Can Trigger Us

Even the very very finest boards do. Here’s why.

The combination of pleaser+caretaker+fierce advocate leads Executive Directors to consider the advice of boards with a big old grain of salt. “Board members are volunteers – they don’t live and breathe this work all day every day like I do. Don’t they know I’ve already thought of that / tried that and it didn’t work?

If you are a board member reading this, I bet you have experienced this. A comment from your fearless leader that nearly borders on dismissive (in a very pleaser sort of way).


  1. Recognize it for what it is. The fact that your E.D. seems defensive is the presentation, not the underlying symptom.
  2. Under no circumstances should you try to work around it. Don’t go out and buy a “lead” barrel full of eggshells so your entire board can tread lightly to avoid triggering the kryptonite.
  3. Please oh please board members, be thoughtful about performance reviews and any kind of constructive criticism. No eggshells (see #1). I mean don’t just casually say something that can trigger the kryptonite. Once the kryptonite is triggered, even something small will feel really big. Consider what is called a “learning stance” and use the power of the question mark. How do you think the event went? Let the E.D. talk and then, “Would you like some of my feedback?” The E.D. can say no, but never will. And then you have permission, which changes the dynamic quite a bit.
  4. If you have been really thoughtful about the conversation, at some point it just needs to be what it is going to be. The E.D. has to manage her kryptonite because you have to do your job.

Bottom line: Never act out of fear of triggering the kryptonite. Always act based on what is in the best interest of your organization, the issue you are fighting or the clients you serve. That is your job. Your superpower.


Am I triggering YOUR kryptonite right now? I know E.D.s are reading this and staring at their skin. Yup. It’s thin. Try some of these remedies to keep the kryptonite as far away as possible.

  1. Recognize that you are indeed a superhero with an intense need to please and take care of people. And you have stepped into a leadership role to use these attributes to repair a part of the world. That is noble. Own it.
  2. See the kryptonite as an extension of your superpower. When you go into any conversation where someone is unhappy or offering you the most thoughtful constructive feedback, know that your reaction is coming from a good place. Try to grab that strength to avoid the defensive tendencies that come with thin skin.
  3. Is there anyone you can lean on as a mentor or coach? Someone you really respect that can help you see the kryptonite coming? Who can help name it to help you manage through it?
  4. Take care of yourself. I have seen it so many times. The more overwhelmed, alone and exhausted you feel, the closer the kryptonite comes to you my superhero friend. Author and superhero in her own right, Brene Brown says, ”Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love.” I heard a variation on this the other day on a podcast that I like even better in this situation: Take care of yourself the way you would take care of one of your clients.