What Makes a Gr8 Leader?

Today’s guest blogger is Karl Nichols. Join us on this journey every week as guest bloggers share their thoughts on what they believe makes a Gr8 leader. 

Karl Nichols has over 20 years of experience as a management professional with a proven record of leadership in the non-profit sector in the areas of educational and healthcare program management, administrative leadership, organizational partnerships, fund development, and civic engagement in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and now Austin, Texas. In Austin, Karl has worked in senior leadership roles with organizations such as:  OneStar Foundation, Skillpoint Alliance, SafePlace, and more recently, the African American Youth Harvest Foundation.  Currently, Karl serves as the Vice President of Investor Development for E3 Alliance, a regional data-driven education collaborative that is building the strongest educational pipeline in the country to drive regional economic prosperity. He is also the founder and instructor of Austin Community College’s Leadership and Management Series a continuing education series for becoming a more effective leader, manager, or supervisor through practical, skill-based learning. Karl holds both a BA and MBA with a concentration in nonprofit management from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. 

Over the past twenty years, I have been afforded the wonderful opportunity to work very closely with leaders of nonprofit organizations who are responsible for leading and managing mission driven work for the benefit of thousands in our community.  Working in a senior executive capacity along with several president and chief executive officers (CEOs) over the years, I have seen firsthand the top characteristics that I believe those leaders have demonstrated that not only have impacted my growth and development, but also impacted the entire organization and its work in the community.

What are the characteristics that makes a Gr8 Leader? First and foremost, in my experience, all of the leaders that I worked for already possessed some basic fundamental qualities and competencies that contributed to their success.  Like the profiles of most leaders, they were all smart, educated, driven, passionate about their work, modeled high integrity, and possessed an uncanny ability to motivate and inspire others.  However, even with these basic threshold of leadership qualities, a few possessed something very distinctive that separated them from the rest.  What was that secret ingredient?  The secret of their leadership success was not what they learned in some school.  It was not their IQ score or their business school degree. Not even their technical know-how or their years of expertise is what defined them from others.  In fact, what promoted them from average to exceptional leaders was what author Daniel Coleman calls emotional intelligence. 

Our emotional intelligence (EQ) is what determines our potential for learning the practical leadership skills that are based on five core elements: self-awareness, motivation, self-regulation, empathy, and adeptness of relationships.  Emotional competence is the learned capability of our emotional intelligence that results in outstanding performance in your work and endeavors. In other words, the characteristics that make for a Gr8 Leader can soar to new levels and heights when one realizes we all possess the ability to grow our EQ or emotional intelligence competence over time.  More plainly stated, how committed are you to “self- mastery” as a leader? The mark of a true leader is his or her ability and willingness to grow and learn to become a better “YOU” each and every day.

Time after time, in numerous examples, I have seen leaders excel while other floundered in the same difficult situations.  For instance, I cannot remember a time when I worked for charitable organizations when they did not face a significant financial challenge whether that be the loss of a large philanthropic grant, drying up of major donations, and/or a new strategic direction that impactedin the entire sector.  When those situations occurred, it usually meant the organization was facing layoffs, needed to find new funding sources, and/or undergo a rethinking of its business model to stay relevant. In all of these cases, the CEOs who demonstrated high emotional intelligence, in my humble opinion, had the ability to manage their personal selves and the social competence of their organizational relationships to drive their agency more effectively out of financial crisis.  Instead of blaming others, keeping with the status quo, and ignoring the warning signs, these exceptional leaders looked internally to see how they may have contributed to the situation and then began to engage their team to gain valuable perspectives for productive solutions. In one occasion, the organization I was working for was facing a $1 million budget deficit which was caused by a loss of a major federal grant and an accounting error by the development office.  Instead of blaming the grant writer and a glaring mistake caused by the fundraising team, my CEO took full responsibility and began to rethink how the organization could be restructured in such a way to best handle this looming financial crisis. They began by engaging managers in constructive dialogues and surveying staff on how best the organization could change to be more impactful in the community.  In the midst of this, when none of the staff had been given cost of living adjustments for several years, my CEO took a 15% pay cut and donated their salary back to the mission of the organization.  This CEO believed if they were asking staff to do more work, to make sacrifices, and to be open to new ideas, then they needed to be the first to model it.This took a considerable amount of EQ on the part of my CEO. This single act alone changed the dynamic of the organization and led to positive staff morale. I can remember many of the hard conversations I had with my CEO about layoffs, eliminating programs, and rethinking our business model. But what I remember most distinctively was how they were very adept at balancing their emotions while understanding and developing others during this crisis.  This CEO continuously coached me to find creative ways to find cost savings and engage my operations team in shared decision making that would create greater buy in for change.

Consequently, in a similar scenario at different organization, I worked for a CEO who demonstrated very low emotional intelligence, or what some might classify as the colossal leadership vices of “pride and arrogance”.   Instead of looking at the crisis as an opportunity to look internally and see how they were potentially contributing to the problem, this CEO wanted to continue to do things the same way and wanted to know what others were not doing that caused the problem.  I can recall sitting in senior staff meetings with my CEO and they would be blaming the development team for not raising enough revenue and accusing program directors for not developing high quality programs.  However, if you could play the tape back twelve months earlier, these same staff members were informing the CEO that we needed to explore new funding sources and consider new programming if we were going to remain competitive and relevant.  Instead of listening or embracing some of the staff suggestions, this CEO was not open to any of these new ideas because as he/she stated “for the past five years the organization he founded was successful doing it his way.”  For several months during this crisis, I would try to communicate to this CEO that managers felt they were not being heard and the current problem was symptomatic of a lack of growth and innovation instead of incompetency. In addition, there were several legacy programs at the agency that were not pulling their weight and had been operating in a deficit for several years. However, this CEO believed even the thought of dropping a program was a sign of failure. They were adamant about keeping things the same way even though the team was communicating to the CEO that old programs were bleeding the organization financially. Under this leadership, my ideas were not encouraged, there was unwillingness from the CEO as the leader to grow, and clearly the dissatisfaction of other staff was totally blind to him or her. It was a very dysfunctional organization because of the CEO’s low EQ and leadership compass.

Nevertheless, I have found those leaders that made an investment to grow and build their emotional intelligence capacity (EQ) over time were the ones who experienced and found long-term success both personally and professionally.  For the sake of brevity, I will not go into great detail of all of the competency frameworks of emotional intelligence. However, as a leader, it is worth finding out exactly how you score on your EQ index and then coming up with a personal improvement plan to build your leadership skills and abilities for the benefit of yourself and others. Anecdotally, the CEOs that I worked for that demonstrated high EQ were ones that were always learning, great listeners, willing to hear constructive criticism, and never took themselves too seriously.  In fact, these leaders were very intelligent and extremely competent, but they also had a keen ability to be able to relate to all people and clearly understood the importance of inclusion and empowerment in their work.  The mark of a Gr8 leader is having the sense to know that good leadership has to be grown emotionally for the benefit of others. These experiences have allowed me to truly understand what servant leadership is all about.  I now realize that an exceptional leader must excel at mastering oneself and truly understand how to build others to reach their full potential along the way.


10 thoughts on “What Makes a Gr8 Leader?

  1. Very insightful post! The focus on emotional intelligence is something that tends to get overlooked in development circles, so I appreciate this candid discussion on its importance.

    1. Nelson,

      Don’t ever underestimate the importance of emotional intelligence as the difference maker in why others excel and some fail. Thanks for your contributions.

      Karl Nichols

  2. Very inspirational post for young generation like myself who can learn to grow and understand the importance of leadership.

    1. Thanks April! Leadership abilities are something that can be developed over time. If you interested, it taking your leadership capacity to the next level; let me know.

      Karl Nichols

  3. Great emphasis on how developing the basic fundamentals and honing ones skills can help make them a great leader. Thank you!

  4. Awesome read with great insights. “In fact, these leaders were very intelligent and extremely competent, but they also had a keen ability to be able to relate to all people and clearly understood the importance of inclusion and empowerment in their work.” It truly goes to show that an effective leader possesses this type of balance and servanthood. Thank you for this post!

  5. I have considered business but not the traditional path of climbing the ladder. I would love to have a mentor who has the business acumen and experience that you do.

    1. Richie,

      I will be starting a leadership cohort in January of 2016. If your interested in mentorship and coaching, let me know.

      Karl Nichols

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