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Leadership and Sustainability - Changing the Question

Sustainability has become a part of the nonprofit leadership lexicon. The thing is, it’s a word that holds so much, the sustainability of the planet (and in fact all life), the sustainability of our work, the sustainability of the individual. It’s a word that conjures up fear because it speaks to our survival on both the macro and micro level. In leadership we are beginning to take up environmental sustainability as part our organizational and personal practices whether we are explicitly environmental programs or not. Many organizations are trying to hold green meetings with carbon offset programs. (eg. LLC and ILA’s international conference). We often focus on sustaining our individual organizations, but what if the question was about how to sustain our mission?

At the personal level many leadership programs focus on questions on balance to ward off the danger of “burn out”. The migration of non-profit leaders to the corporate sector has been well documented by CompassPoint in their Leadership Lost series. The top reasons sited are stress, worry about resources, and poor compensation. A lot of programs seek to restore or rejuvenate leaders by providing a respite, an opportunity for reflection, support from peers, new skills for more effective performance and new ideas.

I worry that we are often returning people to the same dysfunctional system that is energy depleting. Its interesting that the CompassPoint report about the stress factors seems to suggest that sustainability of the individual in leadership is most compromised by their efforts to sustain their organizations so lets talk about organizational sustainability. Ideally most service organizations should be striving by their success to make themselves obsolete (e.g if homeless organizations successfully eradicated homeless there would be no need for them). If we accept this premise, then why the focus on “organization sustainability?” I wonder how things might start to change if we were to shift our paradigm from Organizational Sustainability to Mission Sustainability?

The irony of the Organizational Sustainability mindset is that those organizations with whom we are mostly closely aligned in mission can also be seen as our competition from a niche market perspective. If our highest value is mission sustainability these organizations become partners in the work. As we start to shift our perspective, we may even find opportunities to merge, share space and resources or we might even find ways to collaborate in seeking funding for a cluster of work. It may be that individuals lose heart for their work when their focus shifts from the mission where their passion lives to the basics of institution building and funding. I think there is something fundamentally wrong with this system. Maybe our individual energies (and leadership capacity) will be most fully unleashed by looking the problem head on and coming together to creatively explore new ways of moving resources into communities and organizing work.