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Best Tactic in Leadership: Step Back

By February 13, 2013April 25th, 2014Nonprofits

As I read and re-read Bush Fellow Teresa Peterson’s blog post: “From Super Leader to Sustainable Leader” I recalled the faces and actions of many nonprofit executive and development directors.

I’ve coached, trained and crossed paths with literally thousands of social profit organizations in my career. More often than not I am struck by the superhuman actions of the founder, CEO or fundraising staff who attempt to “do it all.”

Teresa’s post is a powerful and honest reminder that doing it all is not the best way to LEAD.

This concept is as important in coaching like I do, as it is in leading your organization.

Here is the excerpt from Teresa’s post that struck me like a lightning bolt:

“In serving, we sometimes find it difficult to say “no.” Accepting every opportunity and request can sometimes lead to “Superman syndrome,” or in my case, Superwoman syndrome. Perhaps in part my feminist attitude contributed to my can-do-everything attitude—work, school, family, leadership—I can have it all.


Leading begins to take on the form of self-sacrifice—from volunteering to saying “yes” too many times, and from working late to having a laptop in bed. Often times, a “Super Leader” can keep this up for a long time, achieving great feats. In fact, we’ve all heard that the people who are the busiest are the ones who get stuff done! Rest assured, we will get the job done!

Until one day, you find you’ve worked yourself into a corner…”

Teresa goes on to talk about some of her own ah ha’s after receiving the Bush Fellowship. I’m really drawn to the concept of Sustainable Leadership she describes. I hope you will be too. You can read the full post here.

For, as Teresa boldly states: “By working hard we sometimes make it impossible for others to discover their own leadership talents.”

Here’s where taking a step back can be key. Whether it is your board, your staff, or other key volunteers or community partners – allowing others to take on responsibilities WILL make your organization stronger.

I often facilitate Fundraising Action Planning sessions with nonprofits. Recently I spent a couple of days with a group of very committed volunteers and staff in a planning session. One of my requests is that the follow-up report I draft be shared with the group BY THE VOLUNTEER LEADER.

Who shares the report with others can be a statement about who is responsible for the actions. Unfortunately. the staff leadership were in a time crunch to share the information I had sent and found it “easier” to share the report themselves. They were not able or chose to not take the time to work through the issues of providing the email addresses for those in attendance and the final report to the volunteer leader to distribute.

What could have happened:  By sharing the report peer to peer, the volunteer leader would have begun building accountability into the follow-up actions the group had just agreed to. 

Instead that step was missed, thereby setting up, once again, that the function of the committee is really staff’s responsibility and we as volunteers can dabble in the real “work.” 

I encourage you to heed Teresa Peterson’s words:
“Sometimes the best tactic in leadership is to step back.”


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