Being leaderly when leaderless

Quick follow-up to yesterday’s post on The Importance of Being Leaderly.

There is an Official Adjective that speaks to leadership in an organization: leaderless.

Yes, that’s right. We have a word to describe a lack of leadership but not one to describe a surfeit of leadership. Nope, not one to describe the idea of an organization being filled with people imbued with the confidence to–regardless of title or status–be leaderly.

We have a word that speaks directly to the terrible state of affairs of being, gulp, leaderless. But not one that speaks to the awesome state of affairs of being filled to the brim with people who–again regardless of title or status–can and will step up and lead.

On a day when the United States has been all but shut down due to a distinct lack of leadership on the part of our Capital ‘L’ Leaders, it seems fitting to look at the power of being leaderly. This power goes largely untapped and un-encouraged. Clearly, that needs to change.

Off my rocker and dreaming

The other day, someone asked me if I was worried I would become known as “That crazy lady who won’t stop talking about renaming the nonprofit sector“.

I told him no.

Here’s why: Because I am 100% comfortable being thought of as a little off my rocker if it means we find a way to talk about our work that gets away from a term that defines it by what it is not, instead of what it IS. Because it is awesome and important and ground-breaking and world-changing.

And it has nothing at all to do with sector. (Which, as Joanne Fritz pointed out in the comments on this post, sounds militaristic and silo’d.)

I dream of a day when the do-gooders of the world don’t feel obligated to have their sector define their impact. It doesn’t matter if you work for a 501c3, a venture fund, or a global software giant. The tax status of where you work is irrelevant. The impact of the work you do is absolutely relevant.

I dream of a day when we define ourselves not by sector, but by cause, purpose, vision, mission, and community.

Sectors are handy from a regulation perspective. But if we allow them to create artificial boundaries that define our work, we miss opportunities to create connections inspired by shared purpose vs shared tax status.

Will it be easy to change how we talk about our work? No. Change is hard. It takes time and tenacity. And some will say, “It ain’t really broken, so why fix it?”

My dream is not everyone’s dream. But that’s the nature of dreams–they are yours and you can choose to share them or not.

I am choosing to share this dream because I believe words matter. I believe they influence our impact. I believe words are one piece of the elusive puzzle that is a better world.

So I’m fine being the crazy lady who dreams about words, the demise of sector dominance, and the advent of a way to describe our work that speaks to what it is. I’m totally cool with that. Because our work is making the world a better place. And that matters.



Great jazz. Great messaging.


Ray Nance: a man of many musical talents

Ray Nance  is famous for his trumpet solo in the Duke Ellington orchestra hit, ‘Take the A Train’. He played this solo every night the orchestra played from 1941-1963. Although he did variations on it, he always started out by playing the original versions.

What makes great jazz musicians great is that they master the basics first.

This applies to mission-driven messaging.

It is tempting to immediately start switching up your messaging (usually reverting back to what you’re used to) when you first start using it. This is largely because–as with most things that involve change–when you change your messaging, it’s uncomfortable.

Give it time.

Once you have mastered the basics, you can riff.

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?