How to Take Your Leadership Game From Good to Great

by Joan Garry

Imagine for a moment that you chair the Executive Director search committee on your board. You’re in the final rounds with two very different candidates…

This post is adapted from Joan’s new book Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because Nonprofits Are Messy.

Imagine for a moment that you chair the Executive Director search committee on your board. You’re in the final rounds with two very different candidates.

One is well known in your community and would bring gravitas to your organization. He’s known to be a great fundraiser, but finance and management skills are not his forte and his background in media – your sandbox – is slim.

The other candidate is from corporate America. She’s basically unknown in your sector but is strong in your sandbox and is known for strong management. She has zero fundraising experience.

Your organization is in financial trouble. It’s so bad you may not hit payroll next week. Plus, you owe a quarter-million dollars to vendors.

Who should you hire?

Trust me. Any search committee could have this exact issue.

And it’s not just a board dilemma.

It’s universal to anyone inside or outside of an organization considering a move into leadership. Thinking about throwing your hat in the ring for a promotion at your school – you’ve been a teacher but never a fundraiser? Are you the COO who feels ready for the leadership gig? Are you a current board chair with no fundraising experience? Could you be an E.D. that won’t admit to a soul that the balance sheet is total gibberish to you?

And it’s a dilemma for current leaders, working to be the nonprofit leaders their organizations deserve.

A number of years ago, a statewide human rights organization had a similar dilemma. Hire the candidate with deep roots in the issue – well known in the community, strong media skills and a fundraising track record.

The other finalist – no chops in the sector. Not a fundraiser. Came from the labor movement. You know the movement where you need to get lots of people on the same page and then fight for what you believe in? A movement in which your reps have to trust you, allow you to lead – one in which relationship building is key?

They picked the labor candidate. This candidate grabbed the reins and the organization grew in scope and impact in very short order.

How did this hire get made?

Someone on that search committee encouraged the group to consider the ‘chop-less’ candidate through a different lens.

Through the lens of key leadership attributes. And in my opinion, attributes may in fact be the true superpowers of leadership.

And yes I have a list.


1. Conviction

As each of you knows, nonprofit leadership is no walk in the park. Hey why should it be? You are moving mountains. But without conviction in the real promise of the organization, no one will follow your lead. When I coach clients who have been leaders for a long period of time, I often ask, “Are you as passionate about the mission of this organization as you were when you arrived?” When I hear a pause of any sort, we talk about it. A lot.

2. Authenticity

Real leadership demands it. So too does fundraising. Because it is the foundational attribute of trust.

Ever been to a fundraiser when the head of school, or board chair is talking to you but not looking at you and not listening to you? Rather she is, but to spot the next donor on her list – you know, the one who gives more than you do. Icky right? Because there is nothing genuine about your interaction. I’m guessing the leader didn’t ask you any questions about you and how you were doing.

Not authentic.

What does authenticity look like?

Working a room? Come on. I like to say that everyone is really interesting for at least 3-5 minutes. So engage authentically, learn something and maybe teach something.

Authenticity looks like admitting failure. Everyone makes mistakes but a person who lives in the world authentically shares his/her mistakes or values the role mistakes can make in becoming a more effective and productive organization.

3. Learn To Tell A Good Story

I drive staff and board clients mad talking about this. A great leader is a great storyteller. It is absolutely critical and a key component of my coaching work I do with clients around commencement addresses and gala remarks.

What kind of story? The kind of story that makes folks say “Tell me more.” or “Let me get out my checkbook.” or “Now THAT is a story I should write about!” or “Will you come talk to my congressman?”

4. Have Fun; Be Funny

One of the reasons I started this blog was that nearly every nonprofit resource was so damned serious. I get it. Saving the world is serious business. But that kind of intensity is not sustainable. You have to have a release valve. I find that behaving like an eight year old is often a very good strategy.

So we were in the midst of a board meeting and a quite serious discussion about the need for greater investment in technology. Our IT Director Aasun Eble, who was indeed quite able, was in the midst of a serious and dry presentation. Seemingly out of nowhere, the following slide appeared.

3 Poodles

Aasun decided we should all meet his three poodles. The room became weak with laughter. But that is not the end of the story.

From that day forward, you did not give a board presentation at a GLAAD board meeting without a picture of your pets appearing somewhere on a slide. This ‘gimmick’ brought my senior staff to life for our board in a way that resonated for them. It was no longer the CFO or the Director of IT. It was Kerry, the dad to two adorable kittens, Marilyn and Monroe. And it was unexpected and funny. It brought us together in a different sort of way.

5. Be Bold

I believe that with authenticity and conviction comes a sense of fearlessness.

Now I’m not suggesting that you suggest a bold new strategy or initiative in your first week (that would be stupid, not bold). I’m suggesting that

your board, your staff and your constituents or clients deserve a leader who will make the tough calls, come up with a new idea and try it. I’m not talking about arrogance here nor am I talking about a leader who behaves like a lone cowboy. But remember: didn’t you step into a leadership role to change the status quo?

6. Be Joyful

Related but different from humor. This should not be that hard to feel or to project.

I have a beef with Executive Directors who don’t see their work as a privilege. To get paid to do something that matters? To make a living making some part of the world a better place?


I’m not naïve; the work can be hard, painful and sometimes feel like too steep a climb. But make no mistake. It’s a joy and a privilege and the most effective nonprofit leaders see it that way and it’s palpable.

Did you just read this list and remember wistfully that Dino’s Pizzeria is looking for drivers?

Don’t give up on me so easily.


  1. Nobody has all these from the start.
  2. These attributes can be developed and you can present them in your own way.
  3. These attributes do not replace skills; I am just arguing that attributes are often ignored as you consider your own leadership bag of tricks. And that working on cultivating these attributes can have as much if not more of a payoff than a class on how to read a balance sheet or a certificate in nonprofit fundraising.


I saved the most important lesson for last. Understanding how power works as a nonprofit leader is critical. Realizing that developing your core attributes in addition to skills can take your leadership game from good to great.

But never forget where the real power comes from.

It comes from the two to three sentences that you and your board slaved over and nearly wordsmithed to a pulp: Your mission. What is it you do and what is it in the service of.

Your mission statement is your north star. The big thing that matters most. You role as a leader is to keep the organization focused on it, even when you are deciding about the centerpieces for the gala.

We’ll talk more about mission statements in the next chapter….


This post is adapted from Joan’s new book Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because Nonprofits Are Messy.

Available now at Amazon, B&N, Books-A-Million, Indiebound, and book stores near you!

5 thoughts on “How to Take Your Leadership Game From Good to Great”

  1. This is incredibly valuable. Our organization struggled with CEO’s prior to my arrival. I think sometimes they’re so focused on finance skills or management skills they forget about the “basic” skills that make them successful leaders. No one leader can have it all, but if they have what matters, the rest takes care of itself. As always, thank you for your timely, meaningful articles.

  2. I love this – you see beyond the nuts and bolts to the heart of the work. I am happy to say that I feel I have these attributes! I love to break up a meeting with a joke, to have fun at work, to be bold and take that leap. My dad was an old yankee story teller and I inherited this from him. And I believe deeply in our cause, and in living a joyful life. Thanks Joan!

  3. Thank you for your comments on the importance of a strong nonprofit leader. I must admit, however, that I disagreed with the example story you supplied. Obviously there were details I don’t know, and it worked out well so they made the right decision for that specific position – but in my experience hiring a nonprofit CEO without nonprofit experience is usually a disaster. After working with many clients as an interim, and helping with the hiring and transition (as well as working as a nonprofit leader for almost 25 years), I believe the most important factor is the LEADERSHIP STYLE.
    In for-profit businesses, being direct and making executive decisions quickly can make the difference between success and failure. However, in a nonprofit a leader can not have long-term success this way. They must employ an influential leadership style in order to get various stakeholders onboard for each important decision. It takes more time, more finesse and hard work… which for-profit executives just don’t understand.
    I enjoyed your article and the content is valuable, but I just wanted to share a little different perspective. Thanks so much for not only this, but all your valuable content and discussions!
    Kimberly Brock

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