Authentic Leadership: Enhancing Culture through Liberated Relationships

More and more often, we hear stories about nonprofit organizations surrounded in controversy and conflict of interest, or mired in scandal from crimes such as embezzlement and larceny. Just this past week, an article by Paul Sturm in the Nonprofit Quarterly highlighted the downfall of a nonprofit organization after the Executive Director uncovered a $750,000 embezzlement scheme perpetrated by one of its own employees. While the details are certainly horrific, none were more shocking than the board of director’s decision to fire the Executive Director for uncovering the improprieties in an effort to cover up their own incompetence and inability to effectively govern. Though the events that led to the nonprofit’s demise and the ongoing legal challenges are somewhat exceptional, the issues of exercising sound oversight, accountability, and fiduciary responsibility and leading with collective integrity and value-based principles continues to be a major shortfall in many nonprofit organizations across the country.

There are many articles, e-books and consultants that offer guidance on the importance of stewardship and how to establish sound governing principles that limit power struggles, encourage positive and constructive communication, facilitate shared vision and direction, avoid conflicts of interest, and foster genuine commitment. In fact, it has been said that if nonprofit boards did just that – focused on the mission, placed the needs of the organization above those of individual visions and agendas, and worked collaboratively to ensure the continued success of the organization to which they serve – much of the dysfunction and scandal that seems to plague the sector would disappear.

Sturm suggests that nonprofit leaders, boards, and staff must collectively strive for a culture that rests on a foundation of integrity that embraces conflict and employs systems that seek constant improvement. While I do not disagree, I also believe that we must go further if we aim to be better. We must be honest.

Nonprofit boards exist to ensure the organization they lead upholds the trust of the public to which their charitable purpose serves. An article that was previously highlighted in the Harvard Business Review states that “effective governance by the board of a nonprofit organization is a rare and unnatural act…” I agree with that but also question why it seems to be so difficult for so many organizations to harness collective strength for greater good? Perhaps the simple answer is that we are not being honest – honest with each other, honest with the public, honest with ourselves. 

One book that has provided some level of clarity on this issue is ‘Emergent Strategy’ by Adrienne Maree Brown. Ms. Brown reveals that we exist and operate within a culture of lies. She suggests that within this culture, we have learned to lie, deceive, misrepresent through mistruths, disinformation, or omissions so that we do not have to ask for what is needed, articulate what we desire, or confront those that hurt or disappoint us. She suggests that the reasons we evade these truths can be found in our capitalistic desire to belong to a group, a community and that our personal value can only be identified through what we produce and how we contribute to that community. An example can be found in nonprofit founders that comprise their boards of personal friends and seek employees that are totally complicit, can be controlled and “know how to take orders”.

Another cause for our dishonesty is the systemic oppression of supremacy. If we are not a white, straight, educated, successful male, and we do not exercise that privilege appropriately, our opinions and our truths do not matter. Finally, we are taught that disruption is divisive. We have been led to believe that disruption can only be perpetrated by those that are moving towards profit, and progress is not important unless a profit can be made. To counter these reasons, Ms. Brown has developed principles that encourage open, honest and authentic communication within a concept called Liberated Relationships.  By exercising these principles, we build our relationships on honesty. When we avoid the programmed urge to tell white lies, misrepresent, or redirect because we believe it to be kind, socially acceptable, or strategic, we overcome barriers that prevent our own happiness and allow for an environment that fosters honesty and compassion, and builds trust. If we are also honest with the dynamics that exist based on race, gender, sexual orientation, class and ability – and recognize them as constructs – we can operate within them and evolve beyond them. Finally, if we build these relationships for the purpose of learning from them, growing alongside them, and transcending these constructs together, we can coevolve as individuals and as partners, and focus our collective efforts on the success of the organizations that exists to improve the lives and conditions of the vulnerable and forgotten. Within this authenticity, our organizations will rise above the scandal and controversy that exists in the depths of mistrust and greed, and move towards progress and equity.