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Leon Panetta On Nonprofit Leadership

by Dan Kimball

Panetta and Yours Truly

I serve on the board of a local nonprofit organization that recently brought former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to speak to community members and students. With over 50 years of experience in Washington D.C. as a congressman, Secretary of Defense and head of the CIA, Mr. Panetta had lots to say about leadership. He spoke about negotiating with people on the other side of the table and having to make hard decisions when people don’t see eye to eye. One thing that was very clear to me about Leon Panetta as I heard his story was that he is respected by colleagues on both sides of the political aisle, whether they agree with him or not.

Now, I have never been an elected official, so I cannot speak to the challenges they face. But I have been in nonprofit leadership for many years, and I do think there are some similarities. For the most part, nonprofits are in the business of making people’s lives better by serving their communities in a variety of ways. There are challenges for nonprofit leadership when it comes to fulfilling their missions, raising money, and leading boards and staff, both large and small. I can understand and respect those.

“If you are going to lead, you have to take risks,” Panetta said, noting that public leaders have a choice between taking bold steps to “avoid or contain crisis” or simply “governing by crisis” which is often done, but not always as the preferred course of action. Whether you are in a position of leadership at your nonprofit now, or hope to be in the future, the Panetta quote is a good one.

Other Leadership Lessons To Think About For Your Nonprofit

  1. The most important thing a leader can do is to better the lives of the people they lead and serve. Invest in people and they will invest in you.
  2. A dream is just a dream unless you are willing to work for it, to sacrifice, to take risks, to fight, and to never give up—to do whatever is necessary to make the dream a reality.
  3. There are two choices leaders can take: to lead ahead and through a crisis, or to wait and lead only when a problem or crisis arises. The latter allows the crisis to determine the future. Leading, however, gives you a foundation for how to respond in the moment and handle it in the future.

Leading a nonprofit can be challenging, exhausting, and sometimes not always popular. However, it can also be very rewarding when you see the fruits of your labors through a brighter future in the work you do and the places you serve.

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