How to Lead like a Boss When the Going Gets Tough

Research from The Bridgespan Group shows that demand for effective nonprofit leaders today is as high as ever. While demands are being met by filling executive director and other senior management positions fairly quickly and fairly well, the challenge still persists: How do we find a leader who is not only good at what he or she does, but also great at inspiring others to work alongside them, forging ahead in any situation.

How do good leaders lead through turbulent times, so the team stays together to reach the desired destination?

Those who remain focused on the horizon, or on the overarching mission, during difficult times are able to effectively lead their teams through the fog of work—the internal office politics, sudden changes, negative public pressure, and other external and internal odds that make the daily work of work challenging.

At the forefront, formidable leaders stay cool with calculated responses—even when they are fearful themselves—and rely on a strong, unwavering compass to keep everyone on board and working together to achieve the intended result.

As a nonprofit leader yourself, you innately know what it takes. Perhaps you’ve had to lead through trying times yourself, or followed someone who inspired you to give your best when the situation was uncertain or taxing to every sensibility.

How did you lead? Why did you follow? What are the connections between the two that would make you a successful leader?


Every work and leadership style is different, but these are common mantras among those who lead well.

Keep calm & carry on. Overhyped today, this phrase is powerful nonetheless. It first appeared on a pre-World War II government-issued motivational poster to calm fears and raise morale among the British public. While we certainly don’t worry about mass air raids in our line of work, nonprofit leaders must stay in control of emotions, to knee-jerk reactions to all types of situations or personalities. Instead, the winning approach is to respond thoughtfully and always in line with your organization’s policies and strategic goals.

Keep going, even when you’re scared. There is a chance that the plan might not work—yours or a collectively designed one. And there will always be the naysayers. But you must keep moving ahead. Courage doesn’t mean there’s an absence of fear, but it does mean that you do what must be done even in the face of it. Your team needs to know that you’re securely at the helm, even in the darkest hours, to navigate and make those tough but necessary decisions.

Keep an eye on the big picture & the small details. We’ve worked with thousands of nonprofit leaders through the years, and the most inspiring ones possess the remarkable ability to simultaneously zoom in and zoom out with their thinking, often within the same few moments. They assess their nonprofit’s “health” in a holistic sense, in terms of operational efficiency and programming efficacy, then quickly drill down to the source of a problem and devise responses to remove the tension

While others on the team may get bogged down in the gossipy nature of unsettling situations, leaders rise above the chatter, staying as neutral and mum as possible, focused on the mission at hand.

Other strategies that we’ve found great leaders continually work on (because even when they’re good, they realize there’s always room for improvement):

  1. Work on listening, truly listening. The saying “talk is cheap” has never rang more true, especially with today’s outlets for widespread self-expression. When meeting in person, however, strive to stay attentive by minimizing distractions, clearing your head of other pressing needs, and staying focused on what’s being discussed at that moment. Repeat main points if you find yourself drifting.
  2. Remember that you talk with more than words. Body language, tone of voice and even seating arrangements can affect how people perceive you. In confrontational or tense situations, for example, avoid crossing your arms across your chest, which makes you appear more hostile. Look people in the eye, not at the phone or up at the ceiling, when talking to them. People rarely feel open to share when they feel unimportant and may become resistant to seeing you as their leader.
  3. Settle yourself before the day starts. Get to the office early, when possible, or at least dedicate time to yourself—first thing—to make to-do lists and establish daily priorities. It sets you on a proactive path, where you’re more in control rather than reacting to others’ needs. Also set specific times throughout the day to check email and return phone calls.
  4. Think through how you’ll handle tricky situations. Leaders experience big firsts, like the first time leading a board meeting, pitching a project to high-level donors or reprimanding a staff member for inappropriate actions. Whenever possible, do as much prep as you can to feel properly equipped, and call upon other experts, like legal or HR counsel. Write out a script and practice beforehand, so you’ll have the words ahead of time, and take yourself through the situation in your head to “see” yourself doing it well.

More on what makes a good leader: Do you agree?

  1. Leaders jump in and get dirty.

They don’t preach or bark orders from a pedestal; rather, they’re the first to wade through the muck and mud with their team, waving them on to the finish line. They don’t stop lifting the heavy load until everyone gets there.

  1. Leaders have eyes in the back of their head.

While leaders keep the team together to achieve the goals set out before them, they are equally attentive to what’s going on around them and the threats that lie in wait to sabotage the team’s success. They continually anticipate, assess and reroute the team, if necessary, to reach the final destination altogether.

  1. Leaders make you want to come to work.

A leader inspires with words and actions that build employees’ motivation from within. They praise in public and offer constructive criticism in private. Empowering while simultaneously guiding employees is key. Accomplish this through phrases like, “You might want to consider …” “Have you thought about this approach?” And not with, “It’s truth because I say so and that’s how we do it.”

What do you think are the hallmarks of a great nonprofit leader? Have you ever seen them in action?

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