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7 Magnificent Ways to Lead Nonprofit Teams

In the 2016 remake of the film the Magnificent Seven, a small town is terrorized by a greedy land baron and his men. As a result, the townsfolk get together to hire U.S. Marshall and Bounty Hunter Sam Chisolm, played by actor Denzel Washington, to help them defend themselves against the land baron. Sam recruits a group of men from a variety of backgrounds to come together and defend the town from tyranny.

With more than 30 years of experience both solving problems and leading teams in the nonprofit sector, the movie Magnificent Seven plays out like many of the nonprofit organizations I've consulted. The people have a problem, they seek out the right leaders, the leaders build a team, and they all work together to defeat the enemy.

To get the best results as a leader of a nonprofit, the people you lead should all be saying in one way or the other after you speak, "let's march!" When you speak to people as a leader, it's not what you say that's so important, it’s the action people take after you speak. In a nonprofit organization, if you’re not having the people you lead take the right action, you're giving short shrift to your leadership, their trust in you, and their desire to act for you.

Here are 7 ways nonprofit leaders must facilitate action to get teams marching in the right way for the right purpose at the right time in the right direction.

1. Physical Action

Action is not what your team thinks or feels, it’s what they actually do. Most nonprofit teams act with their hands, feet and tools. When thinking of what action you want your team to perform imagine that they're doing something physical and you're on track. Getting your team to take right action involves challenging them to do one specific thing. There's a saying that "if a train is coming at you, closing your eyes won't save you... but if you look right at it, you at least have a chance to jump.”

In your day-to-day leadership activities, you're probably not meeting such daunting challenges as dodging a moving train, but you can use the principle to raise the effectiveness of your teams activity to much higher levels.

2. Intentional Action

People who act for the sake of staying busy are useless to an organization. It is only those people who act for intentional results who are useful. Make sure your teams’ actions are intentional.

When your team does act, they should know exactly what they're doing and why. Constancy of intentional action in leadership has three aspects: reason, feeling and awareness. Your team should understand the rational justification for the action. They should be intentional in their commitment to the act and be fully mindful that they are acting.

3. Honest Action

If you trick your team into acting or lie to get them to act, you'll damage the element on which all motivation is based, trust. Afterward, you may be able to order them to do a job, but you will never motivate them. Be honest with yourself in developing a call-to-action and be honest with your team in challenging them to act.

"Never esteem anything as an advantage to you that will make you break your word or lose your self-respect."

- Marcus Aurelius

Leading based on trust is a practical standard for leaders. After all, you won’t know how good you are as a leader unless you can challenge your team to be better than they think they are. They cannot be persuaded to accept that challenge if they think the you or the organization is deceiving them.

4. Meaningful Action

Action gives meaning to the emotion your team feels. Emotion alone cannot get results, it's the action they take that does. Action validates emotion; hence the emotion validates the action. Leaders who find little meaning in their jobs or the results associated with their job, shouldn't be leaders. Most leaders understand this, but few leaders understand that meaning also involves the jobs of the people they're leading and the attitudes of those people toward those jobs and the results the jobs aim for.

Your cause should be meaningful to the people who must carry it out. If it is only your cause and not theirs, the actions they take will get insufficient results. Your cause will be meaningful to your team when you’re able to first meet their individual needs. A challenge for most nonprofit leaders is considering the needs of the team in relationship with the needs of the people they serve. So, before you challenge your team to act, identify their needs and the meaningful problem-solving activity will follow.

5. Action Linked to Needs

Your team’s needs are their reality. If you’re a task-oriented leader you clearly don't have to know their needs, you simply exhibit a my-way-or-the-highway attitude. However, if you want to motivate your team to act, you need to understand how positive action is related to the needs of the people on your team.

What motivates your team is not your choice, it's their choice. Your role is to communicate a compelling vision and provide a template for success. A motivated team comes from within. Therefore, their needs are not only their reality in the leadership equation, their needs are the only reality. They don't care about your needs. They don't care about your reality. They only care about their reality. Tie the action you want them to take to their needs, not yours. Which means of course that you must clearly understand what makes your team tick.

6. Urgent Action

Patience is a virtue, but it can also be a tender trap. Urgency is a results multiplier. A Roman centurion said the secret to instilling urgency in the troops was summed up in two words, "hit them."

This credo lives today in the order leader – not necessarily in a physical sense but more importantly in a psychological sense. Trying to gain urgency through "hit them" is far less effective than having urgency come from the people's internal motivation. Here's a process to have people take urgent action: identify their needs, see the problems in their needs and having their needs taking action provide solutions to those problems.

For instance, at a high school football team practice, a coach comes on the field with a note that said clear off the field. Without saying a word he gives the note to a team captain. That team captain then orders his teammates off the field, however only a few players leave but most stay. The coach then hands the note to a second team captain who pleaded for his teammates to leave. Again, a few leave but most stay. Finally, the coach gives the note to the third team captain who understood how to identify needs and have his teammates take action to solve those needs. He said two words, which emptied the field, "water break!"

People are always willing to take ardent action to solve the problems of their needs. The question is can you identify those needs. Once you do, you are halfway home to getting them to take the action you want.

7. Deadlines for Action

As unusual as it sounds many nonprofit leaders fail to identify clear and specific deadlines. Any activity you have your people take must have a deadline. Otherwise, it might become a low priority and they will not be especially urged to take it.

Leaders do nothing more important than get results and results come from people acting. The problem with unclear deadlines is that you may only get a fraction of the potential results from your team. When people misunderstand what the deadline for action is, you will find that the results are incomplete and/or the wrong action is taken.

When leading teams, deadlines guide people toward taking the right action to achieve the right results. Monitor yourself regularly when motivating people to act by asking, "Have I put a deadline to this action?" If you haven't, do it.

Your ability to fulfill the mission of your organization is in direct correlation to your ability to serve your team while they deliver services to your clients. People will follow your lead willingly if you are honest, ethical, consistent and treat them with respect. As the old saying goes, "people don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care... about them."

Mr. Lynn Johnson is the president of Johnson Development Group. His work focuses on facilitating leadership growth in the nonprofit sector. He brings 3 decades of experience as a nonprofit executive, management consultant, and problem solving to his nonprofit and corporate clients. Visit to stay connected with Mr. Lynn's expertise.

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