Arrogance in Nonprofit Leadership: It Just Doesn’t Belong Here

I occasionally am exposed to a disease that shows up in nonprofit leadership: arrogance. 

Those infected often are left unharmed; instead it can eat away at the passion and vitality of everyone else in the organization.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines arrogance as “an insulting way of thinking or behaving that comes from believing that you are better, smarter or more important than other people.”  On the other hand, Seth Godin defines leaders as people who “know where they’d like to go, but understand that they can’t get there without their tribe. . . .

Somehow, it’s hard to see a place for “arrogance” in Mr. Godin’s definition.  After all, if you are convinced that you are smarter or more important than me, you surely don’t need my help to accomplish your goals.

While there is no vaccination to prevent arrogance, you can protect yourself from it when you . . .

Believe in the mission

If you aren’t 100 percent behind the mission of your nonprofit, it’s easier to start thinking it’s all about you instead of about the mission.  And, if you aren’t totally behind the mission, how can you ask others to support it with their gifts and time?  Signs your work is a passion and not just a job include your investment in the organization through your own financial contributions as well as your time, reading and understanding the materials that donors are being given, learning what your colleagues are doing and how it impacts your work, and being willing to discuss with them — from a point of shared responsibility, not superiority —opportunities to make every aspect of the organization’s work as wonderful as it can be.

Accept that the problem is too big to solve alone

Arrogant people often project a belief that they are the savior of the world, or at least the particular problem their nonprofit organization is trying to solve.  But in reality, many problems our nonprofit organizations are addressing will take months, years, even multiple lifetimes to solve.  Moses is credited with stating 3,400 years ago that there will always be poor in the land — and he is still being proven right today.  But efforts continue to this day to address issues of poverty. The real challenge for a true nonprofit leader or fundraiser is help others to not give up, even when the “finish line” is nowhere in sight.

Know that every bit of progress is a combined effort

“Me, myself and I” is fine for a grammar lesson, but it has no place in your nonprofit organization or culture.  Yes, we need to invite confidence in the organization through our own portrayal of competency and leadership.  But we must never forget that while we may be the face of the organization, everything we accomplish depends on the buy-in and efforts of our colleagues, volunteers, donors, and even the recipients of the good we do.

Make it a passion to share the credit

Some positions get public recognition regularly from donors, the board or community leaders, to name just a few.  But a wise leader first knows without a shadow of a doubt that to accomplish anything, the support and work of others is necessary; and he or she makes sure that those “others” are recognized privately and publically when it’s deserved.  Phoniness is not desired; what matters is true sharing of credit on an ongoing basis.

The disease of arrogance may not hurt the carrier, but it can kill the passion of those around him or her.  The cure won’t be overnight, but starting now, refuse to be a carrier of this virus.