By Rod Macleod, INTRAC Principal Consultant.

‘What will happen when you leave?’, I once asked the charismatic founder leader of a Ugandan HIV/AIDS NGO.  ‘That is not a problem’ she replied, ‘I am not planning to go anywhere’.  Sadly her defiant refusal to accept the march of time ultimately proved no more successful than King Canute’s legendary attempt to hold back the waves.

But if no individual NGO leader can last forever, leadership must be part of any serious debate about NGO sustainability.

This assertion is most easily proved in the negative:  when leadership is weak, myopic, uninspiring, indecisive, inflexible, tired or otherwise inadequate, the results for an NGO can be catastrophic.  We can probably all point to examples of organisations which lost their way, failed to adapt to changed circumstances or quite simply went out of business.  While a regular income will usually secure continued existence, unless there is a strong leadership to deploy those resources, then continued relevance and effectiveness – the point of any organisation in the first place – must be in doubt.

So what leadership qualities and approaches are needed to prevent this?

Horses for Courses

Leadership vs Management

‘Leadership vs. management’ by Olivier Carré-Delisle via Flickr. BY CC 2.0

At least part of the answer must lie in getting the right leaders at the right time. At inception,  a visionary, entrepreneurial leader who can spot a gap in the market and ignore the ‘nay-sayers’ is often what’s needed, as seen with the founding of a well-known Oxford-based civil society strengthening organisation in 1991.  As an organisation develops, it may need a more managerial approach, to help professionalise and embed systems – a Thabo Mbeki type to follow a Nelson Mandela type.  Further down the road, there may be stability verging on stagnation, and a more transformational style is in order to reinvigorate and renew.

But it would be misleading to assume that there is a simple, linear progression to an ideal model of leader here.  John Hailey describes four types of leaders: Paternalistic, Activist, Managerialist and Catalytic; he concludes that it is this latter Catalytic type (with a wide world view and able to engage actively with external stakeholders), who is more likely to generate longer-term strategic growth.  Rick James argues that leaders need to overcome their tendency to autocracy and become more humble.

Both are right, at least some of the time.  But it does depend on the time.  There are moments when change is the last thing anyone needs.  One staff member of a UK-based INGO expressed the hope that the newly appointed CEO would not embark on yet another destabilising staff restructuring when he arrived (he did).  On the other hand, while autocratic management styles may not be popular, there are moments when the well-padded posterior of a complacent NGO is ripe for a good kicking.  NGOs are notoriously bad at getting rid of mediocre, underperforming staff and tough decisions can be hard to make with a collegiate style.

Of course, leadership is more than one person, covering both the Board and Senior Staff:  smart organisations try to ensure that the weaknesses of one part of this composite are compensated with the strengths of another.

Leadership development

Then there is the question of how to nurture and develop leadership from within.  The maxim that ‘leaders are born not made’ is contradicted in the numerous leadership development courses now on offer and the array of ‘How to be a Great Leader’ books shouting at us from airport bookshelves.  Much of this is of questionable value.

Traditional skill-based programmes are generally not relevant at this level and the idea that leadership development can be reduced to a checklist of competences does not reflect the softer skills like judgement and intuition, which are often more important.  More flexible, personalised processes seem preferable, which respond both to the individual and to the context in which they are working.  Peer to peer processes can be useful here.

A particular challenge is for organisations moving on from the Founder Director: how far to break the ties with that person and how to fill what is usually a large gap without losing organisational momentum?  Succession planning has been popular in recent years as a way to address this, but with mixed results.

INGOs working with INTRAC on partnership exit strategies have observed that the best prospects for sustainable local organisations are when they have strong leaders.  But to help local NGOs build their own leadership is complex and requires patience.  The understanding and commitment of INGO senior management is needed to support the efforts of staff liaising directly with partners.  Civil society ‘champions’ within donors can also play a part in making the case for the more flexible, open-ended support needed for leadership development, in a context increasingly dominated by tightly constrained results-based funding.

How to get it right?

Considering how to get the right leadership at the right time must be part of the debate on sustainability.  These are tough times to be the leader of an NGO anywhere.  The pace of change is unrelenting: in the nature of problems that NGOs seek to address, in the funding environment, in dealing with local governments, in the nature of the competition and in the complex web of relationships that NGOs must now manage.  Without the necessary leadership to navigate all this, the real sustainability of any organisation must be doubtful.