Running in Circles – A Leadership Reality Check

Dr. Donahue works with catalytic leaders and leadership teams to help leaders maximize their leadership capacity, sharpen missional clarity, build transformational groups and teams. He is a growth coach to senior leaders who act as catalysts for change personally and organizationally.

Running in Circles – A Leadership Reality Check

“What kind of organization are we?” asked a supervisor I had over 20 years ago. After sitting in silence for about 20 seconds a confused team member replied, “What do you mean?” I knew he was asking us to put on a business or organizational development hat for a moment. So to use organizational or business language I was thinking, “We are in the life-transformation business.” But something told me that was not what he was fishing for.

How would you answer such a question? Would your leaders expect an answer like, “We are in the people business,” or “We are in the event business” or “We manufacture custom auto parts,” or “We are a hospital – so naturally we are a health care organization or a service organization.”

“Let me tell you what I think,” he continued. “We are really three organizations in one. And we have to know where our emphasis is at any given time without compromising the other two.” And then he went on to draw three overlapping circles where we “run” and spend energy, and then explained the relationships.

Corporation: Every organization has a “corporate” component. It involves staffing issues, property, insurance, governance structure, board relationships, reports, compliance issues, tax concerns, facilities, and other “institutional” components. The Corporation is where the responsibility lies for effectiveness and efficiency.

Cause: Every organization has a reason for existing – to feed the poor, to manufacture office furniture, to build a library, etc. The Cause has the potential to inspire the passion and focus of the organization.

Community: Every organization has people or impacts people or thrives based on relationships with people. Inside the organization that means a healthy relational environment for staff.

Now here’s the challenge

Some people just think “cause” and some focus on “community” and others are “corporation” intensive. Each has its place, purpose and essential focus. But they NEVER function in isolation from one another – each must consider the other two areas of focus or an organization can falter or fail.

Many businesses tend to focus on Cause and Corporation. Get it done and get it right. People are important but we can always get new ones or better ones. After all, this is why we call it “work” – it is not supposed to be fun and chummy. We are here to get a job done.

Care-oriented non-profits are often heavy on Cause and Community. Passion for people and a strong sense of camaraderie drive the organization. Volunteers love to work in these environments, and people give money based on the relationship they have with the leaders and the cause for which they stand. But the neglect of the Corporation aspect can be their Achilles heel. Such places can be characterized by lack of strategic focus, poor money management, wasted resources, staff and volunteer burnout, and incompetent management.

Government agencies can struggle because they focus on Community and Corporation (in this case, the government structure, hierarchy, rules and regulations). As a result, the Cause suffers.

Name the tension and be wise

To live in 1 or 2 circles for too long is short-sighted. While it is essential to focus on a given circle for a season, you cannot live there. Ok, you need three months to reorganize the HR department so that people are valued and served – great! But you cannot lose your relationship with clients or the people you serve while doing so.

As leaders, we live in the center (L) where all three circles overlap. Our job is to determine when we need to move from that place into one or two of the arenas for seasons of emphasis or focus. But we must never lose sight of the whole. Be diligent to train staff and volunteers to know which circle(s) they “live in” most of the time, while making them keenly aware of the whole picture. Keeping all 3 in mind will prevent becoming too corporate, blindly mission-driven, or too self-centered.

So which circles are you running in these days?

Dr. Donahue works with catalytic leaders and leadership teams to help leaders maximize their leadership capacity, sharpen missional clarity, build transformational groups and teams. He is a growth coach to senior leaders who act as catalysts for change personally and organizationally.

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