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Leadership Nightmares and How to Wake Up From Them: “Excellent Vision, Poor Execution”

By Lilya Wagner on July 11, 2011No Comment

Is everything spinning out of control in your world? The economy has wreaked havoc with your fundraising goal.  Major donors don’t return phone calls.  The board pressures you to find new donors, when you know that maintaining good relationship with current ones is ultimately more productive but takes time with no immediate return.  Cost to raise a dollar is spiking.  And on top of it all, your boss, the appointed and recognized leader of your organization, has a vision for the organization but when it comes to action, doesn’t “walk the talk.”  As a friend of mine who for obvious reasons wishes to remain anonymous said,  “My boss was forever coming back from somewhere with some great idea that he wanted me and my department to execute – when all I really wanted to do was execute him!” The can-do, bootstrap approach embedded in the fundraiser’s psyche is under assault. Eroding it is a reality that chips away at our conviction that a leader’s involvement in our fundraising efforts is essential.

Nightmares text

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Consider this scenario, submitted by Bobbie Donahue, consultant residing in Indiana.  Your leader has been to a conference, read a book or been to a meeting and has heard this “great idea.”  He* comes to you very excited and full of enthusiasm, believing this idea fits his grand vision. You appreciate this excitement when he is talking with donors about the mission or challenging the board to participate in fundraising. It is not so helpful when your plate is full, expectations are many, but all you get from the leader is impressive verbiage and no “shoulder to the wheel” action.

So what do you do?

Bobbie suggests, encourage him to work with you to sketch out the new idea.  Ask him to explain to you how he wishes to be involved.  If he says, “This idea fits in your department, or your job description, therefore you do it,” explain that you want to be sure to have action match vision, and need him to remain involved.

Remind him of the board’s expectations and how you have a plan to meet these, while of course acknowledging that plans are flexible.  Offer to write a short report to the board on his vision and specific idea with accompanying suggestions on how this vision can be implemented, then ensure he approves of the steps which will necessarily detail his involvement.   He may have one of two possible reactions.  First, he will see that his vision requires his involvement as well as yours, and the board will expect outcomes, so he may experience a touch of reality that causes him to either modify or even abandon that particular vision. On the other hand, he may embrace his own vision even more fully and in order to enjoy the realization of his vision (or to not be embarrassed by non-action), will offer to be part of the execution of the vision.

Steve Reed, president of Marketing Partners, Inc., says, “If the CEO is truly visionary, use that to engage the CEO in specific ways. Don’t expect the CEO to drive execution. Chances are that’s not his or her long suit. Your strategy should be to gain the CEO’s confidence and then enlist his or her participation when needed. This means you have to be the tactical planner and orchestrate the program.”

Two authors of note in the leadership field, Kouzes and Posner, wrote that those who accept the leadership challenge must also challenge the process, because leadership is an active, not a passive process.  Leaders are people who are willing to step into the unknown, to take risks, to innovate, to experiment, to find new and better ways of doing things, to recognize good ideas, to share a vision.  It’s interesting to note that these two respected experts combine vision and action as they describe the leadership challenge.

In short, consider these steps in dealing with a leader who has great vision but little follow-through:

  • Listen respectfully and carefully to your leader’s vision.
  • Ask clarification questions that help your leader more clearly identify particulars of the vision but also help you understand what might be expected of you.
  • Offer implementation steps, request feedback, and ensure these steps include appropriate involvement by the leader.
  • Connect the vision to the existing plan, and involve your development committee at the minimum, and ultimately the board if the vision involves some grand scheme or idea.
  • Identify progress points at which time you will evaluate the movement toward the vision and describe how you will report progress to your leader.
  • Above all, avoid seeing your leader’s vision as a threat but view it as an exciting opportunity that you have the chance to help craft and bring to fruition.

Comments, suggestions, even arguments are most welcome.  Our colleagues in nonprofit management and fundraising can always use fresh approaches, new answers to old questions, and thought-provoking ideas.  Dr. Lilya Wagner, CFRE, is an experienced fundraiser, consultant, editor and author, teacher and trainer. She can be reached at

*For ease of reading, this column will use one gender pronoun per article, instead of the cumbersome he/she.  In this column, the masculine gender was used consistently.


teven A. Reed

Marketing Partners, Inc.

2919 Division Street, St. Joseph, MI 49085

Suite 123 Park North, 860 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801

Roberta “Bobbie” L. Donahue, CFRE

Consultant, faculty member of The Fund Raising School

527 N. Drexel Ave.

Indianapolis, IN 46201-2966

James M. Kouzes And Barry Z. Posner.  The Leadership Challenge: How to Get Extraordinary Things Done in Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers

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