Potential leaders are not necessarily the ones that know the most, but are the ones that are tied to your mission, trainable, and work well with your other staff. You can teach someone almost any procedure, tool, or day-to-day work, so when identifying potential leaders, you should focus on the attributes that are not so easily taught.
When you are identifying up-and-coming leaders within your organization, here are some traits to look for:
Nonprofits can and should have many different perspectives, backgrounds, and narratives within and outside their organization. Being able to listen to the voices of many different stakeholders and unify everyone towards a common vision is an important skills.
The ability to wear many hats is an invaluable skill in the nonprofit sector. Look for someone that can work on a variety of different projects and remain oriented and focused.
Nonprofit leaders have to be very intentional in all aspects of their work. Intentional with their time, with their focus, and with their staff as they work to fulfill their mission.
This one is fairly obvious for all of us in the nonprofit world. Our work can be heartbreaking, trying, and downright tough sometimes. Look for those that are committed to your mission.
Doing the hard work of changing the world can have a serious mental toll. The best nonprofit leaders are optimistic that they truly can change the world for the better.
Nonprofit leaders carry a lot of weight on their shoulders. Leaders answer to many different stakeholders, so it is important that they understand and can manage this responsibility.
This one may seem a little silly, but this trait truly goes a long way. Nonprofit leaders deal with donors, board members, staff, and people receiving their programs or services (sometimes all in the same day.) Nonprofit leaders that are genuine, friendly, and truly care about the people around them can build these important relationships up.
It is important that nonprofit leaders think about more than just the day-to-day; they also need to think long-term for the organization. Being strategic is important for nonprofit leaders- this skill can make or break the sustainability of organizations.
Once you find a potential leader, invest in them. Too many nonprofit organizations rely on outside hires to fill executive leadership positions, and do not offer any opportunities for staff to grow and develop their skills. Investing in your people now can have a huge payoff later: a strong, skilled leader that is embedded in your organization, knowledgeable about your culture, and passionate about your mission.
(Check out Nonprofit Leadership Toolbox for accessible and affordable professional development for your future leaders).
Sounds pretty good, right? So take the time to look at your staff and who could be your next great leader. Think about what traits and attributes are most important to your organization, and then begin mentoring them and providing them with ways to grow and learn within your organization.
And for those of you that didn’t notice- yes, that list of traits DOES spell “unicorns." Go ahead, take a second look. We need more unicorns in the nonprofit world, don’t you think? (If you don't already know about the Nonprofit Unicorn, check out this blog post from Vu Le.)