From Webster's to Wiki...definitions of leadership abound.

I’m sure my nonprofit colleagues would agree with me: leadership is the key to success. Of course, strong management and good governance are essential, but are younger siblings to the older, wiser leader. Perhaps family harmony— or dysfunction—among siblings is not an apt metaphor, but what is leadership if it is not about people who influence us.

Milwaukee’s nonprofit sector has many experienced and talented executives, but if national trends hold true here, two-thirds of these professionals anticipate leaving their current positions within five years. As the guard changes, new and emerging managers need to learn the skills to operate successfully in an environment in which organizations must do more with less. Management skills like budgeting or Board development, while useful, are no longer sufficient to encourage the development of a good leader. The Center for Creative Leadership warns that executives of nonprofit organizations are now required to addresses challenges not faced by their for-profit counterparts, in that they are tackling complex issues with few resources within a multifaceted environment. Of even greater concern is that many of the retiring executives were active leaders within their organizations as well as in the community.

What is leadership?

The concept of leadership is not as concrete as management and governance, and there are many different definitions of leadership. Some describe leadership as an individual who influences change; others emphasize a leader’s ability to explain a vision; still others focus on a leader’s legacy. Is nonprofit leadership different from for-profit leadership? Is there a one-size-fits-all definition of leadership?

Last year, one of the first assignments that I gave to an intern working with me on designing a leadership initiative, was to craft a definition of leadership that could be adopted by the Fund to guide future program investments. She said she would complete the assignment by the end of the week—after all, she was a practicing attorney and enrolled in a graduate program. So, we began the search through Wikipedia, dictionaries, quotations, and research reports to find an appropriate definition. During the process, we laughed at some of the ideas and we thoughtfully debated others.

Here are a few that spurred a reaction; some definitions are succinct while others ramble, and some just outright confused us.

  • Leadership is power.

  • Leadership is vision.

  • A leader is a dealer in hope.

  • Leadership is intentional influence.

  • A leader is someone who guides or directs.

  • “Leadership is the process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.”

  • “A leader is one or more people who selects, equips, trains, and influences one or more followers”…(plus 41 more words.)

  • “The activity of leading a group of people or an organization or the ability to do this.”

  • “Leadership is living a life that inspires others to do more and be more than they ever thought possible.”

  • “[Leadership] is like a dogsled team. If you ain’t the lead dog, they scenery never changes.”

  • “A leader is like the Abominable Snowman, whose footprints are everywhere but who is nowhere to be seen.”

  • John Quincy Adams declared, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.”

  • The Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management (now known as The Frances Hesselbein leadership Institute) has long been in the forefront of thinking about leadership in the nonprofit sector. The forward to the Drucker Foundation’s “The Leader of the Future” sums up the meaning of leadership as “The only definition of a leader is someone who has followers.”

  • And a little closer to home in Wisconsin, Vince Lombardi asserted “Leadership is based on a spiritual quality; the power to inspire others to follow.”

  • Or to paraphrase Will Rogers. “A leader knows that you should drink upstream of a herd.”


After consideration of more than 100 descriptions and three months of work, we recommended that the following definition be adopted by the Fund.

“Leadership is inspiring, motivating, and engaging others

to collaborate toward a shared vision.” 

Every community needs visionaries who deal in hope and use their influence to create a more productive, effective, and brighter future. How do we ensure that some followers become willing and adequately prepared to lead?

In order to determine if Milwaukee’s resources were sufficient and appropriate to educate or train the next generation of leaders in the nonprofit sector, the Fund’s partners authorized a small-scale undertaking that would assess the current leadership programs for local leaders, and scan the country to identify interesting leadership development models. In contrast to BoardStar and the Fund’s typical technical assistance grants, this project was launched to identify and enhance professional development opportunities for individuals, not organizations.

To support nonprofit leaders, local foundations have been instrumental in the creation of many community- and college-based leadership development programs, but are these opportunities keeping up with new paradigms? Do Milwaukee’s current and prospective nonprofit leaders have access to the types of training and support they need?

In the next few weeks, I will share the wisdom of veteran and emerging nonprofit leaders; an overview of 70 local leadership programs; some national trends in leadership development programming; and, my recommendations for implementing a nonprofit leadership development system in Milwaukee.

Stay tuned for our next episode!

4 comments | Add a New Comment
1. Jean Butzen | June 11, 2014 at 08:26 PM EDT

You are a leader, Pat, and you taught me what it is to be a leader. Thanks for challenging me to step up to be a leader when I was young and didn't have the courage. Of course, I think if I hadn't done so, you wouldn't have let me get away with it so it was just easier to \do it,\ than to say \no,\ with you :).

2. Brenda Campbell | June 12, 2014 at 07:26 AM EDT

Thanks for sharing your definition. Love it!

3. Jane Dewey | June 13, 2014 at 03:59 PM EDT

I really like your definition of leadership. It is so true and sometimes so hard to do well!

4. Brenda Peterson | June 16, 2014 at 01:28 PM EDT

I love the saying \ leaders are the dealers of hope\...I am hoping auto correct doesn't change that sentence (grin). John Quincy Adams quote is hits the mark with me, \If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, become more you are a leader.\

Thank you Pat W. NPMF and the funders for creating a safe, nuturing place for community members to be inspired to lead. Please continue!

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