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permission to speak freely, or the emperor’s new clothes?

permission to speak freely, or the emperor’s new clothes?

Nonprofit Management and Leadership

With nonprofit management and leadership, and as a leader, you have a choice between these two cultures.

In the US Army, when an officer has a particularly sticky problem with the actions or orders of a superior officer, s/he can “request permission to speak freely.” After the superior says “yes”, any following statements are viewed as information sharing or critique but cannot be used against that officer in the future. This policy was created to allow a culture of openness to prevail.

In the story of the Emperor, we know that those around him were so afraid of losing their jobs that they altered reality for themselves, and in turn, convinced the Emperor that his new clothes were magnificent. Wearing nothing at all, the Emperor’s town’s people saw no clothes at all, and the Emperor was completely humiliated.

You have all seen these situations when it comes to nonprofit management and leadership. Probably you take notice of the second example more often. Why? Because the Emperor’s story is more noticeable in our organizations than we would like to admit. During nonprofit training, I even hear board members talk about holding back in a conversation with the Executive Director because they are intimidated.   Senior staff refuse to tell their superior that an idea is less than acceptable, but rather tell the boss what s/he wants to hear.

Today’s example of two opposing cultures is the sole responsibility of the leader. You as leaders create the culture in your space. You create it intentionally or by chance, but it is all about nonprofit management and leadership! As a leader, you inspire followers. Are you intentionally inspiring an open culture? On purpose? Or, do you leave it to chance?

Your followers will gravitate to the easy way out if you as the leader do not give them “permission to speak freely.” Staff needs your permission to have an opinion in tough situations. Remember, your board follows you, too! On operational policy, messaging, and culture, they will follow your lead. That’s why they hired you.

What culture have you created?


Written by: John J. Corcoran

President & CEO

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