Improvised Leadership in your Non-Profit

By Katie Reynolds

Beth Kanter recently published a post entitled, ‘What Improvisation Can Teach Social Change Leaders’. The blog explained and recounted a recent workshop wherein the attendees were taught the importance of maintaining order when control is not present.

This scenario is all too often true in the fast-paced world that we operate in. All is going well when you realize you just deleted the excel spreadsheet you have been plugging away at for the past two days. Everything is going great, and our support goal is right on track when your biggest donor decides to pull the carpet out from under you.

As leaders in the non-profit world, it is vital for us to grasp and come to terms with the reality that things will not always be in our control. If we learn to effectively harness the ability to charge forward in the midst of chaos, we can better run our organization, and thus better leave positive impact on the world around us. Creating calm in the chaos allows for efficiency in delivering and working on the mission that we have passionately set out for in our organization.

The initiator of the workshop used the working definition for improvisation of  “making or creating and doing the best you can with what you have.”

There exist a handful of necessary skills to obtain in order to be prepared as a leader for when disorder strikes. These are as follows:

Engaging in the present moment
It is all too easy to come to late night meetings with a checklist mentality–go over these topics, insert an inspirational catch here, send the team off to another week, answer individual questions of employees after the meeting–WAIT. Did you miss it? Did you catch the flippant dismissal of answering employees? Go back, and engage this time. Too often we as leaders are confident in the direction our organizations are going, and as a result we easily space off as others come to us with questions, concerns, ideas, and more. This is a critical mistake. Make an effort to really engage with those in your workplace–you will become more aware of what is going on amongst your lower ranks, people will know you care about them, and you’ll be that much more prepared if Bob walks into the office with an earth-shattering rumor that shakes the confidence of your organization.

Openness to Change
If Bob’s rumor turns out to be true, be prepared to adjust accordingly. Writing everything down and having a formalized plan is great, but do not close yourself out to taking a new direction. Improvised leadership is prepared with a plan, and prepared to drop that plan.

Empathy and Active Listening
Creating meaningful relationships  is crucial to obtaining perspective on the positions of your team members when you are forced to make a quick decision. Being able to make decisions in the best interest of the organization and its people is a key aspect of good leadership. Practice listening carefully, asking questions, and responding to your team’s stories, requests, ideas, etc.

Celebrating Failure
With the stress of being the lead person, failure is certain to pop up every now and then. Responding well to the sudden realization of failure is important, and one is faced with the choice to dwell in an imperfection, or to press on with zeal. As the leader, zeal is the necessary answer to maintain positivity and encouragement in the efforts of your organization. Practice something such as the Failure Bow to prepare yourself for when mishap happens.

How to Co-Create
Leading with positivity is also a crucial part of creating with others in your organization. In fact, it is how you co-create successfully. Kanter recounted an eye-opening activity performed in the workshop,

“We worked in small groups and did an exercise three times about planning a party with the phrase “Let’s have a party and bring…” The first time, we were asked to respond with a no. The second time we responded with yes, but. The third time we responded with yes, and. There was a distinct difference of energy.”

This practice emphasizes the importance of creating a workshopping and content-creating environment conducive to success. Additionally, this type of energy responds to crises with an optimism rather than with a road block approach.

Katie Reynolds is a Junior at the University of Iowa studying a major in Journalism and Mass Communications and a certificate in Entrepreneurial Arts Management, as well as a minor in International Studies. She works diligently at SCOPE Productions as the Assistant General Manager.


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