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A picture of Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler was a famous science fiction writer who died in 2006. She was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation”Genius” Grant in 1995, and her books reflected an understanding of power dynamics, character and leadership missing in other science fiction books.

Her advice on how to choose leaders, from an interview in 2002, seems to me to be still relevant for your nonprofit:

“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”

Do you know a nonprofit leader who is a coward, who refuses to do the tasks that scare them, like major gift asks?

Do you know a nonprofit leader who is a fool, and who doesn’t have any idea how a social worker does their job, or how you do your job?

Do you know a nonprofit leader who steals, who prints and takes reams of paper home for their kid’s school?

Or a nonprofit leader who never keeps their appointments, who in essence, lies to others when they say they will meet with them?

Do you know a nonprofit tyrant?

What are you going to do, if this kind of nonprofit leader is in your life? Who is a safe person to talk with?

She said, “And there’s one other that I thought I should read, because I see it happening so much. I got the idea for it when I heard someone answer a political question with a political slogan. And he didn’t seem to realize that he was quoting somebody. He seemed to have thought that he had a creative thought there. And I wrote this verse:

“Beware, all too often we say what we hear others say. We think what we are told that we think. We see what we are permitted to see. Worse, we see what we are told that we see. Repetition and pride are the keys to this. To hear and to see even an obvious lie again and again and again, maybe to say it almost by reflex, and then to defend it because we have said it, and at last to embrace it because we’ve defended it.”

Do you know anyone in your life who stands by something simply because they’ve said it, whether or not it’s actually true, despite repeated facts put in front of them?

This can be one of the most onerous problems to deal with in your nonprofit. You might come into a situation where people are doing things one way simply because “We’ve always done it this way” and “It works well enough” and “I don’t see a better way to do it.”

This is when a knowledge of lean manufacturing can come in handy. Read “The Elegant Solution” by Matthew May.

You may not be able to overcome the inertia, demotivation, foot-dragging, and just basic unwillingness to move more quickly at your nonprofit all at once, but start to shake things up a bit. Make a suggestion at your next staff meeting. Start doing things without official approval, that you’ve wanted to do to improve your organization for a long time.