Leadership Under Duress

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Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Richard Woo, CEO of The Russell Family Foundation

 by Richard Woo

My board chair and I attended a very provocative seminar for CEOs & Trustees the weekend prior to the COF conference. The session entitled—Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis—was facilitated by Marty Linsky, a faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-author of the book, Leadership on the Line. Here are some memorable nuggets that captured my attention during the workshop and highly-interactive exercises between CEOs and trustees. Both my board chair and I are feeling our frames of reference shifting.

  • You have to stand in your purpose. If you’re not, you’re certainly standing in someone else’s purpose.
  • The only way you know you are exercising leadership is when you are meeting resistance. In organizational life, when you meet resistance you are on the right track. It’s a sign of addressing really important work. Often we think that resistance is a sign of being on the wrong track—and we back off for the sake of keeping the peace.
  • Leadership is the art of disappointing your people at a rate they can absorb. When you are pushing against what people expect, they can only absorb so much. If it’s a win-win situation, then it’s a sign that nothing important is at stake. Leadership is about the distribution of losses.
  • The push back and resistance comes not because people don’t get it. It’s because they do get it and they don’t like it. Before you push people out of their comfort zone, make sure you have built up enough social capital that makes it more difficult for your board to fire you than to listen to you.

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.


Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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