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How to Use Neuroscience to Become a Strategic Nonprofit Leader

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strategic nonprofit leader

In Part 1 of this two-part series I began to talk about how neuroscience can help leaders be more effective and strategic in today’s economy. Above all else, we discussed the need to think about what people are thinking, not just observe what they’re doing. This holds true for yourself as well as others. We looked at:

  • Two ways to lead
  • Moving from meeting needs to divining needs
  • Becoming a ‘mentalist’
  • Becoming a ‘wise advocate’
  • Integrating mindfulness with executive functions.

Change is never easy. But it’s constant.

“Change is the only constant in life.”

–Heraclitus, Greek philosopher

If you ignore change the world will pass you by. As a nonprofit leader, you don’t want to allow this to happen. The fate of people, animals, places, principles and ideals depends on your success! So today we’re going to dive into how to change the way you lead to become more strategic and effective.

Old Habits Really Do Die Hard

The reason people hire coaches is to help them be mindful. Because your own mind can be a formidable foe. Or ally. There’s a part of the brain, the basal ganglia, that’s commonly called the ‘reptile brain’ or ‘habit center.’ Habits happen automatically. They can be enormously helpful. Or not. Your job is to separate the useful from the unproductive.

Habits emerge when you’re under stress. In your job, this is likely to be quite often. To take control of the situation you want to be able to use your executive brain to make conscious, not unconscious, choices. And habits are not just formed at work, but also in your personal life. Which is why becoming a ‘Grand Master’ leader requires taking a 360 degree look at yourself as a whole person.

Big picture, visionary strategic leaders are self-aware leaders. The transformation begins with you. It begins with understanding the connections between habits formed in your professional and your personal life. Sure, you can be a successful transactional leader without mindfulness. You can get things done. But, over the long run, will you be getting the right things done in the right way? Will you be able to adapt when the time calls for adaptation?

Practice Makes Perfect

Success in anything requires practice. If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, you know the difference between a good musician and a superstar musician is practice. The same holds true for star athletes. For star anyone! Gladwell cites the “10,000-Hour Rule,” claiming the key to achieving world-class expertise in any skill is a matter of practicing the correct way for around 10,000 hours. It’s more complicated than that, and you can dispute the numbers, but the point holds true.

You have zillions of practice opportunities! In fact, you get to practice integrating executive functions with mindfulness every time you make a decision. Here’s an example from the podcast I mentioned at the top of this article, as explained by Art Kleiner:

“Let’s say I have a difficult personnel decision. I’ve got somebody who’s not performing. I want to make that person happy, but I also have to make all the other people who are covering for that person happy, and I have to make my boss happy. And I start thinking about how I’m going to be happy. I take a sick day, and then I come back and I do the expedient thing, which might be giving a poor performance review or setting in motion things [that would lead to a firing].

But I haven’t really thought about what the situation calls for. I haven’t really thought about how this person fits in, what their long-term trajectory is, what contribution they’re making, what it would cost to replace them and what this person is thinking. Why are they doing the things they’re doing? Why are the people around them not giving that person the support they need? Why am I reacting the way I’m reacting?

If I stop and look at my own thoughts and re-label them not just as reality but as my own reactions to this — if I come up with a storyline that helps me understand the various people and the relationships between them — then I’m much more equipped to say, What does this situation really need? What do we all need to do differently, and how do we all need to think differently?”

When you practice you change the way your neural patterns work. This makes it possible for you to overcome old habits, because you’re forming new ones. As time goes on, you’re able to shift from a useless habit to a useful one, because you get a new ‘inner voice’ that serves as your internal ‘wise advocate.’

Build Confidence to Tackle Big Picture Issues

Plan your escape from putting out fires and treadmill implementation mode. These are not-so-silent killers. And nonprofit leaders complain to me all the time about this as a reason why they can’t get down to the business of transformation.

Keeping your head down is doing no one any favors. Stop being an ostrich, and look squarely at the elephant(s) in your room. Listen to your wise advocate. Listen to the voices in the organization around you. Take some time off – a day or a week — to consider how you might focus your energies differently. The goal is to begin the process of rewiring your brain from avoidance to meeting people where they’re going.

Hold your head high, and trust yourself. When you integrate your executive functions with mindfulness, you’re no longer swinging from the hip. You’re thoughtful. You’re strategic. You’re outer — and inner — informed. Use this to build your confidence and to make educated, assertive decisions.

Transformational Nonprofit Leaders are Supportive Leaders

Supplant your gut instinct to transact with a practiced instinct to transform. Shift your mindset from ‘getting what I want’ to complete a task to “getting what people/the community/the world needs’ to thrive. Shift from having no time to listen to yourself and others, to making time to figure out what those around you need you to be.

“The power is in the focus, because by focusing your attention differently, you rewire your brain.”– Jeffrey Schwartz

Shift your habitual self-centered modus operandi to a more other-centered transformational mode. Practice redirecting your instinctive attention focus, and use mindfulness to redirect your energies to better serve your big picture, long-term goals. As you support others, they support you. So you get stronger. And better. Not overnight, but over time. You grow. And your leadership helps your organization to grow.

Next Stop: Culture of Philanthropy

In a culture of philanthropy everyone thinks about what others are thinking, both inside and outside the organization. I wrote recently about why nonprofits should include staff in their annual fundraising campaigns, and got a lot of pushback from folks who offered the perspective of staff working in oppressive cultures and how it was disingenuous to ask them for money. Good point! Absent an affirming, supportive culture (and this generally comes from leadership) you’re not going to be able to make this work. Something has to shift first.

Instilling a culture of philanthropy requires changing habits. You listen to your wise advocate and use your executive function to inhibit no-longer adaptive habits. One such ingrained habit, common among nonprofits, is the soul starvation mentality plus the starvation cycle that discourages investment in so-called ‘overhead’ expenses that are essential to effective operations. People work exceedingly hard, but not especially smart – at least not over the long run.

Next Step: Attack Opportunities to Learn

I recommend you read:

  1. The Wise Advocate: The Inner Voice of Strategic Leadership to learn some simple ways to overcome impulsive thinking and create greater leadership in your life and for others. Maybe even read this book by Art Kleiner and Jeffrey Schwartz as a team; then discuss how you can all benefit, as individuals and as an organization.
  2. What’s Ruining Your Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising?  In this article I talk about how failure of leadership is throwing huge red penalty flags all around you, and why you must find a balance between innovation and status quo.
  3. How to Modernize Your Nonprofit Marketing and Fundraising. This takes my previous article on Clairification to the next level with 10 leadership ‘to-do’s’ and a way to shine a light forward in the darkness.

Great leaders are great learners. True innovation requires exuberant leadership from the top. The passion to change requires exactly that. Passion. People — and organizations — learn from their failures. Celebrate successes, but also embrace mistakes. It’s how we learn. And if leaders and organizations don’t keep learning, they stagnate and eventually wither.

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