This is the story of Goldilocks and the three executive directors, though there is no happy ending here. After all, this isn’t a fairy tale but real life!
For the last three years, I’ve been facilitating what we call CLEAR Circles (Cultivating Leadership Excellence and Responsibility) for emerging leaders. Emerging leaders are individuals who serve in management positions reporting directly to the organization’s executive director. CLEAR Circles started almost eight years ago for us as groups of executive directors who meet once a month for nine months for two hours of peer-to-peer problem solving. Three years ago, we created our first circle for emerging leaders; this year we have three such circles.
Over the years and over the emerging leaders, I’ve begun to hear a theme that distresses me no end: most executive directors don’t know how to be executive directors.
This executive director is too manic! What, the first time I heard this description, exactly did that mean, I wondered? This is the executive director whose mantra appears to be “let’s do this; let’s do that” without any regard for how “this” or “that” will be funded, staffed, sustained, etc., let alone whether it fits with the mission. Some might think that manic (from mania, “excessive or unreasonable enthusiasm”) much too negative an appellation for what is really very creative—do I hear some people saying “visionary”—leader. But I would have to disagree.
The executive director who assigns idea after idea of new programs to his direct reports without regard for the implications and ripple effects for the organization as a whole, is not a leader or manager of any sort. I’ll admit that creativity, thinking of new ways to fulfill those mission promises, is a very exciting and rewarding part of being an executive director. But doing so without regard to sustainable revenue streams for the program, staffing, mission fit, and what starting something new will mean for existing programs is irresponsible, inconsiderate and simply bad management and leadership. Manic executive directors scare me; they are to me the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland and may as well be saying, “Off with their heads!” The effect is the same for the staff members who are required to drop everything and respond to this day’s or month’s “brilliant idea” and the clients who suffer as a result.
This executive director is too passive. Apparently, there are an awful lot of executive directors out there who cannot say “No,” “Enough,” “This has to stop,” “We have to let you go,” etc. Yet, at the same time, they have no problem letting their direct reports be their “hatchet” person, the no-sayer (which is very different from being a nay-sayer), the deliver of “uncomfortable” news. What is that about? And apparently, there are an awful lot of executive directors out there who are very mysterious—and I don’t mean exotic and exciting. I mean it is a mystery as to what it is that they do! This is the executive director who is out more than she is in, the one who is so frequently unavailable, whether in the office or not, the one who can only do one thing at a time (though expecting everyone else to juggle incessantly), the one who never responds to anything. This is the executive director, who, in essence, leaves the ship rudderless but empowers no one to pick up the slack.
This executive director is too irresponsible—my label, not the emerging leaders. They are much, much kinder and talk about the need to “manage up.” Managing up is a euphemism for making a boss’ life easier while the employee takes more and more onto her plate. Things that the boss should be doing! I know that many management gurus and career coaches think that managing up is good: it gets the one managing up noticed, builds his skill set, demonstrates competence, etc. To me managing up sounds like enabling the boss to continue not to do his work while someone else works 12 hour days and the boss gets all of the credit. Oh, what fun! May I please be the one to do that?
It is true that there are times when a good, strong executive director should be creative and enthusiastic to turn around a dying organization or breathe new life into a service area. Yes, there are times when, in an effort to develop someone’s leadership potential, it is right for the executive director to step back and say, no, this time I think you are ready to do this unpleasant task and severe the relationship with this consultant. And, absolutely there are times when it is good for the executive director to work unnoticed in the background, perhaps laying the ground for someone else to receive the kudos and attention. And there is no doubt always room to provide the boss with a little nudge and offers of support. But these are sometime things and should be part of the same human package. No one of them should ever be the dominant modus operandi of an executive director.
I know near perfect executive directors are out there. If you see Goldilocks, point her in the right direction. She’s feeling rather tired.