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In August, I was fortunate enough to spend a week at the Aspen Institute. Along with 14 other global nonprofit leaders, I was selected as an American Express Leadership Academy Aspen 2.0 Fellow. The fellowship, focused on the Aspen Institute tradition of values-based leadership, brings together leaders from the sector to discuss a core set of readings drawn from texts ranging from Plato to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Over the course of the last two months, I have had time to reflect on the fellowship as well as my overall experience with the American Express Leadership Academy. Combining Aspen with my experience with Class IX of the American Express Leadership Academy at the ASU Lodestar Center, I have spent considerable time discussing and thinking about themes and challenges that are common across the sector. These challenges are faced by organizations globally, organizations of all size and scale and across focus areas – from education to equity; homelessness to environment; immigration to arts. Many, if not all in this sector, are aware of the challenges and can rehearse them on-demand: funding, capacity, retention, burn out, etc. Many of these challenges tend to be thought of as resulting from external forces, even if they manifest internally (e.g., retention is often talked about as being directly correlated to external funding availability). And, many times they are. However, if we are being objective, we know that is not always the case.
A theme I have seen consistently and one that is often harder to talk about, is: Are we creating organizations we want to work in? To demonstrate, I’ll provide an example. In one of the forums I was in recently, somebody asked the group: How many of you feel you have spent your careers in democratic work places. Don’t confuse this with constitutional democracy. The questioner meant “democratic” in its purest form: shared decision making, shared responsibility, transparency, social equity, etc. Nobody raised their hand or stepped forward. The follow-up question was: As leaders, isn’t it now your responsibility to change this? This well pointed question ties back to values-based leadership.
I bring this up because it often feels like the elephant in the room. However, as leaders, we cannot ignore the elephant. I know this is easier said than done – it is often much easier to address and discuss the external forces that appear out of our control than the internal forces we can directly influence. However, if we are not applying our same set of values internally that we strive to apply through our missions, are we going to be able to build strategies to address those external forces? If we do not build healthy, sustainable organizations that attract, retain, and incubate talent, how are we going to address the major challenges our sector seeks to remedy?
I have spent the last five years helping lead change in my organization. I have more questions than answers. I do know that change is not easy. And, I do know it comes at a cost. That said, if we have accepted the responsibility of being leaders, we must also accept the fact that our job is to address the hard things. I believe this is so important, that it bears repeating: if you are a leader, your job is to tackle the hard things head-on, not ignore them or hope somebody else takes responsibility.
To close, I’ll ask you what was asked of the group I was in: Are you working in a democratic work place? If not, isn’t it your responsibility to change it?
Seth Cothrun is the senior director of marketing and development for the Sonoran Institute. He graduated from the American Express Leadership Academy at the ASU Lodestar Center in 2017, part of its ninth class. Prior to joining the Sonoran Institute, he spent almost 7 years managing business development and marketing initiatives throughout the Americas in the institutional asset management space, working with some of the largest public and private funds in the world. Prior to the financial industry, he spent several years as a project, then program, manager in the US Forest Service throughout the West, in addition to serving nationally on Type 1 Incident Management and Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation teams.