As I write this, I am several days removed from surrendering puppies to a dog rescue. My daughter had three puppies come up at her work and after an employee took one home, my daughter called me to tell me she still had two and the plans to give them a bath and buy food after work. There was no question. For my daughter, being who she is, it wasn’t a question of whether or not they came home. The only question was what time they’d arrive.
My daughter has a heart for animals so going away this fall to complete a degree as a Vet Tech is no surprise. I’ve never known a time when we went somewhere that she didn’t make an animal friend. It’s funny that when she was first born, her Dad called her Doodle. It’s now a sort of variation on the animal talking character, Doctor Dolittle, that fits her well.
So puppies arrived. We have what my husband calls “Casa De Gato” because calling it a cathouse gets too many sideways glances and questions he’d rather not answer. Needless to say, my experience is with cats. Give us a kitten and we instinctually know how to raise it. Instead, I got a crash course in dogs and lessons in leadership.
What I Learned About Leadership
You Don’t Get a Choice.
When they look at you to be leader, it’s not a question of if you will lead but how you lead. For these puppies, I was their leader. It was a responsibility I hadn’t actually or formally said yes to but when they showed up, I was their leader. When I got up, they did too. When I said, “do you want to go out?” They heard, “ Let’s go out”. And they followed. We didn’t set out to be the leader of puppies, we wanted to rescue the puppies. Founders don’t set out to be leaders of an organization. They want to make a difference. But leadership is what you get. How you lead is up to you.
As the Leader, You Must Have a Plan but You Don’t Have to be the One Executing It.
If you don’t know where you are going, they won’t either. It’s your vision and mission that they signed up for. The puppies didn’t have a plan. My daughter had the vision and mission to bring them home to care and love them until we could get them to a dog rescue. She led the vision and mission. She reminded us of the goals. My role was simply to lead the details of the plan. So I set the schedule for the puppies, made sure they had potty breaks, set playtime, and they were fed.
Did you notice that the person that led the vision and mission didn’t have to lead the plan? In the nonprofit world, the Founder or Board (if the organization is old enough not to have the Founder anymore) leads the mission and vision. The executive director leads the plan. The Founder, Board, and Executive Director all work together to formulate the plan. Delegation is key to all the pieces working together.
3. Leading is Selfless; Being the Leader Requires Self-Care
Leading puppies or people means putting others above yourself. Whether you are leading puppies and forgoing some sleep, eating differently, giving up a favorite activity or leading people by being a servant leader where you are not afraid to elevate others and make them better is a selfless act. Allow the people you lead to grow in skills and knowledge to make the team better. Surround yourself with people who know more than you or whose strengths are your weaknesses. It is not only selflessness but a huge asset to the team. Your nonprofit’s growth will be limited by your team. If you create a one-person team, your growth will be limited by your strengths and weaknesses.
As the leader, you have to practice self-care. This is not an option. Pick a day and time once a week to block out on your calendar to do something that rejuvenates, inspires, and energizes you. Is it reading a book? Going on a hike? Being close to the ocean? Getting a mani-pedi? Whatever it is – block the time out and keep it sacred. How? Follow this conversation for the answer that always works.
(Call from a colleague). -Hey, I really need to get with you on Friday at 2.
You: Friday at 2 pm? I’m sorry I have an appointment then. I have time available on Thursday at 2 p.m. or Friday morning at 10 am.
-Okay. Thursday at 2 is good for me.
Or this conversation:
(Text message at 2 p.m. Friday from a board member): Hello- There is someone that I want you to meet. He may be a great donor but he’s only in town for a little while. Can I bring him by?
Option one: Autoresponder
Sorry, I’m unavailable right now. I’ll be free at 4 p.m. and will text you back at that time.
Option two (Live text): I’m about to go into an appointment right now. I’ll be free at 4 p.m. When can we meet after 4?
Send. Turn on autoresponder.
The bottom line is to protect your time. Say no to the distractions and yes to yourself. It won’t take too long for people to catch on that you have a certain time every week that you are not available. Period. Most won’t ask for that time slot once they figure it out. Remember: make an exception once and you will be expected to make the exception every time. Don’t do it!
4. Be Firm but Fair
As leader, you will have to be firm with people just like I had to be with adorable puppies, staring up at me in that pretty please tone. It was hard but giving them one more treat was not going to help either one of us. People are the same way. Sometimes you have to protect the organization, sometimes it’s yourself or personal time, and sometimes it’s from themselves.
Tempering firm with fair is a special skill of incredible leaders. It’s not always treating everyone the same way but finding ways to find win-win situations for everyone involved.
5. It’s Hard to Say Goodbye
My daughter and I were heartbroken to have to give up the puppies after leading them. It was the right decision. My skill set for raising puppies for more than a few days was exhausted. I didn’t have the experience or skills to continue being their leader. And as heartbreaking as it was (oh, the tears I cried!), it was the best thing. I left them with a foster family that knew puppies and had the skill set to handle their growth. It was okay. It will be okay. I’ve resisted the temptation to message the foster mom because they need time and space to get to know the puppies and establish themselves as the leaders.
For your nonprofit, there will come a day when it will be time to turn the reins over to someone with better skills and experience to help the nonprofit grow. It will be hard and you might shed some tears too. But it’s okay. You will need to be selfless here. It’s not about you. (It really should never have been about you but what’s best for the people you serve). Just like me, find the person who has the skill set and experience to turn the organization over to. Step back and give them space to get to know the organization and establish themselves as Leaders.
A Happy Ending
Back to the puppies. They are doing well and are in the care of Go Dogs Go Rescue, Inc, a nonprofit in Warner Robins, Georgia. They are living in a foster home and not a shelter, which was important to my daughter. If you would like to support the nonprofit or are local and would like to give a forever home to a deserving dog, please go to www.GoDogsGoRescue.org.