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Nurturing Leadership in Non-Profits: A Transformative Journey with AMEX

September 2023

Stephen Caleb Opuni

Country Director

In a world where challenges are as diverse as the people they affect, non-profit organizations serve as the vanguards of change, striving to make a difference in the lives of those in need. Yet, the journey of a non-profit leader is not without its hurdles. Recognizing this, the American Express Leadership Academy—a Common Purpose Program for non-profit leaders in partnership with the American Express Foundation—supports a new generation of Resilient Changemakers, setting forth a visionary mission: to strengthen the non-profit sector by enhancing the capabilities of its leaders. This year’s UK and EMEA region program was open for the first time to Non-Profit leaders from the Middle East and Africa, which IDP Foundation saw as an exciting opportunity to be part of this movement of leaders looking to best position themselves to transform and steer change in their respective non-profit organizations.

I was lucky enough to join this transformative journey which encompassed several stages including an in-person four-day session in London, where participants engaged in immersive learning and collaboration. Here we were served up a generous roster of A-listed leaders from varied sectors to learn from.  Personally, one of the most inspiring experiences was a fireside conversation with the distinguished Paul Barber OBE, Chief Executive & Deputy Chairman of Brighton & Hove Albion FC, skillfully chaired by Jen Skyler, Chief of Corporate Affairs & Communications at American Express, and we were treated to a candid and enriching conversation on purposeful leadership. The fireside conversation delved into strategies for building personal resilience, drawing on Paul’s own experiences in the world of football management, with practical tips on how to stay focused and resilient when facing adversity, emphasizing the importance of staying true to one’s purpose and values. His point that leaders who were anchored in their purpose were better equipped to navigate change and lead their organizations through challenging times with the ability to adapt to change, particularly resonated with me.

Another pivotal session was a fireside conversation chaired by Adirupa Sengupta, Group Chief Executive, Common Purpose, with Julia Goldin, Chief Product and Marketing Officer at LEGO. The conversation centered on breaking through the barriers that often stand in our path, citing reasons such as fear, a lack of knowledge, comfort zones, and the influence of social and cultural hurdles. To effectively break down these barriers, she stressed the importance of identifying the levers that motivate people to rise above them. What drives and motivates individuals to embrace change? What are the key factors that facilitate the desired shifts?

According to Julia, it’s not just about achieving immediate results but also about fostering a culture of resilience and adaptability, where setbacks and failures become opportunities for growth and learning. She also highlighted that as leaders, understanding the virtue of patience is vital. Driving a change process and bringing people together and along that journey is a commitment to patience.

As we were presented with the concept of leading beyond authority, I could see how this resonates deeply in the non-profit sector, where leadership often extends beyond traditional hierarchical boundaries. Many successful leaders hold roles where their authority is clear – they manage budgets, oversee teams, and are held accountable for their actions. However, this traditional model of leadership has its limitations, often fostering siloed operations within organizations. Each department or division operates independently, focusing upward rather than sideways to address issues that transcend vertical boundaries. Yet, for non-profit organizations to thrive, leaders must possess the ability to see across the entire organizational landscape, turning the sum of its parts into something greater than the whole.

To accomplish this effectively, leaders must navigate a landscape where their authority is not always clear-cut. They must lead peers, partners, and stakeholders, often discovering that the skills that initially brought them success are no longer sufficient. We were introduced to the concept, leading beyond authority, which demands a different approach to leadership, characterized by the capacity to influence without direct control. Leaders operate within three distinct circles: the inner circle, where personal authority is unquestioned; the first outer circle, encompassing the organization as a whole, where authority might be less pronounced; and the outermost circle, within society, where authority may be entirely absent. Success within one circle does not guarantee success in another. Leaders who excel within their inner circle, where their authority is well-defined, may find the transition to the outer circles challenging. Here, they must rely on their capacity to persuade, their ability to form networks and coalitions, and their willingness to adapt to new ways of working. Notably, timeframes often differ significantly, with initiatives in the outer circles requiring more patience and collaboration.

So, what does it take to lead beyond authority effectively?
What we learned was that this style of leadership demands a diverse set of skills and competencies, starting with the right approach. Leaders must demonstrate courage, tempered by sensibility, as stepping into uncharted territory requires both bravery and a keen awareness of one’s limitations. Feedback becomes a crucial tool for growth, helping leaders refine their approach. Resilience is also essential, as leaders in the outer circles must navigate potentially contentious situations with perseverance. Independence is another key trait, not defined by a job title but rather by a state of mind. Leaders must be known for their independence, as a self-serving image can erode legitimacy. Humility plays a vital role in maintaining credibility, as leaders in the outer circles regularly demonstrate their willingness to listen and learn.

Passion, while a valuable asset, must be channeled effectively. Leaders should translate their passion into a language that resonates with diverse audiences, avoiding the pitfalls of overwhelming enthusiasm. A strategic mindset is critical, involving an understanding that each system is unique, and power operates differently in various contexts. Building coalitions is central to leading beyond authority. Effective leaders recognize that success isn’t a zero-sum game but a collaborative endeavor. Timing is another vital aspect; successful leaders possess an excellent sense of timing, balancing patience with readiness to act swiftly when the moment is right.

Finally, an authentic interest in people, not just as individuals but as human beings, distinguishes exceptional leaders. This genuine curiosity lends integrity and authenticity to their interactions, ensuring that each person feels valued. These leaders excel at creating networks of meaningful relationships, recognizing that nothing significant can happen without strong, supportive networks. In the non-profit sector, where partnerships and collaborations are paramount, the ability to lead beyond authority becomes a catalyst for meaningful change and collective impact.

Since the in-person program we’ve embarked on the next phases of our journey. The 360-degree evaluation reports have been received by all participants, shedding light on our individual leadership strengths and areas for development. Concurrently, the one-on-one coaching sessions are underway, offering personalized guidance to enhance our leadership effectiveness. Looking ahead with anticipation, November will usher in the final stage of our program, the “translate session.” This three-hour virtual gathering will focus on our experiences within our respective organizations following our Academy experience, providing a platform to reflect on the real-world application of our newfound insights.

As I look back on the remarkable journey I have undertaken with peer leaders in the American Express Leadership Program, it is evident that the insights and experiences shared have been transformative. From the emphasis on purpose and resilience to lessons on leading beyond authority, my understanding of effective leadership has evolved profoundly. As I return to IDP Foundation armed with these newfound insights, I am poised to drive positive change and contribute to the thriving space of our sector. The challenges ahead may be daunting, but they are also brimming with opportunities for meaningful impact. This program has not only equipped me with the tools to navigate this path but has also ignited my passion and commitment to making a difference. The future of the non-profit sector holds promise, and with the right leadership, we are well-prepared to embrace it.

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