Kaiser: Someone Must Lead

I am in the process of channeling Michael Kaiser, considered to be the go to guy when in need of resuscitating a moribund arts organization. His record of success, as portrayed in his 2008 book The Art of the Turnaround, is surety for many of us in the broader field of non-profit management that there is hope for the similarly struggling entities we have managed even when they do not yield any sign of being an artistic endeavor. The principles by which we govern remain the same.

Kaiser, however, is a little more adamant than me. My principles are his rules and we are working our way through the ten he describes in his book, rule number one being the title for this week’s message. The best way to illustrate why this is a rule for Kaiser is to divide the word someone into its component parts, some and one. This puts the emphasis on leadership being the responsibility of one individual, not a committee or board, which only a few (or some) can fulfill.

Someone must lead seems like a no-brainer, but that is a grave assumption. Most organizations that are in deep doo-doo cannot decide on who that one person is to be. So it is common for any manager taking on the challenge of reviving an organization’s prospects to find themselves trying to tame a multi-headed beast.

What I found in trying to fulfill this role is that an organization in trouble is not leaderless. It is literally dying due to a glut of leaders with competing ideas. The mission statement becomes fragmented into ever diminishing concepts identified by the pet projects directors and staff champion. Resources are therefore allocated on the basis of individualistic will power with internecine warfare the most conspicuous theme at any meeting.

Each member of the board of directors and generally each program, project or department head assumes that the problem, if they can agree that there is one, is the fault of everyone else. Any new manager determined to hit the ground running in order to rescue the imperiled organization hits a stone wall instead. Change encounters the NIMBY mindset at every level as people fear for their positions of power, however modest, should it be discovered that they have more form than substance; a thin veneer of title and perks disguising an innovative wasteland.

Someone must lead requires the implementation of a truce before consensus can be reached about who that one person will be. But even then there is the peril of choosing the least objectionable person to occupy the principal leadership role in the hopes that they will do the least amount of damage to the existing structure. Life goes on but under the delusion that the first turnaround requirement has been met since the turn has actually gone 360 degrees, bringing the organization essentially back to its failing starting point. What is missing is meeting the challenge of finding a qualified leader from the few who are both capable and available to decisively limit the turn to doing a180. This is what I call the some factor of Kaiser’s first rule.

When directors can agree to select one person to lead their struggling organization towards a path of new found prosperity, they find that this superlative person really does need to be someone special. Their knowledge and skills must transcend a vast array of functions if they are to guide board, staff and volunteers in doing the right things in the right way at the right time. As Kaiser reveals in his book:

“This person must have a single unified vision for the organization, have the courage to make difficult decisions in the face of controversy, possess strong negotiating skills, respect all parties including artists, work incredibly hard, and have an obsessive focus on solving the problems. This person must also understand marketing, fund-raising, and financial management. It is a hard job description to meet but the job cannot be divided among many people.”

He failed to mention “must walk on water” as the catch-all phrase at the bottom of the qualifications list. But if this sounds too good to be true, he is correct in assembling this wish list of capabilities. A good manager for a tough situation is a generalist, capable of managing the specialists, who devise and implement the tactics required for the turnaround.

My entry into non-profit management came by way of being an accountant, who stumbled into accepting a general manager’s position for the sole purpose of helping a struggling organization put its fiscal house in order. By the time I retired some thirty-plus years later I had performed or supervised every task mentioned in Kaiser’s list and a whole lot more. Whether or not I was “respectful of all parties” during those years, as he suggests, is open to debate.

My one regret as I survey my career is that I did not train for this work. Non-profit management was not a degreed program when I was in college. And if it had been I doubt I would have selected it as my major. But what I found in being the accidental NPO manager is that, despite the difficulties of being forced-fed,  more politely known as learning by doing, I enjoyed my work and can only wish that I had brought better knowledge and skills to the positions I occupied instead of gaining them after the fact. It would have benefited each organization more and might have helped me to ultimately master the stellar and essential knack of walking on water.

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