Nonprofit Leadership, Relevance in a World of Changing Realities

  • Michael L. GaylorEmail author
Living reference work entry




The effective use of Influence to move people toward a common goal. The process of establishing a vision and through a passionate communication of that vision, amassing a followership that shares the same passion for and drive to achieve that vision.

Relevance, Relevancy, Relevant

A state of being where an individual or organization possesses Network Power (effective development of networks), Knowledge Power (possession of knowledge), and Personality Power (ability to inspire trust and enthusiasm from others) in amounts sufficient enough to influence change in organizations and communities. Engaged power equals relevance.

New Realities

The state of the social, political, and economic environment where there are rapid and often unpredictable changes in the state of things as they are or appear to be as compared to the way one might wish them to be.


As leaders in the voluntary or nonprofit sector, there are many issues to which one must attend and skills and traits that one must possess. In a world of persistent change, leaders have focused on engaging in horizontal leadership development which focuses on information and external skill sets. This is very necessary but does not necessarily advance the nonprofit leadership pools’ ability to effectively deal with the new realities often facing the nonprofit world. A stronger focus on vertical development or that which advances leaders’ ability to be more adaptive and agile in the face of new realities might better ensure that leaders remain relevant in the eyes of their colleagues, followers, and community at large. Tending to the Habits of Relevancy might ensure that leaders develop relevancy at whatever stage they are in their careers and maintain that relevancy into the winter of their years. Consider the following Parable of Russell T. Kann (Gaylor 2013).

Two nonprofits leaders were taking a stroll in the Bosque of the Rio Grande. One an emerging leader named Milly Enial. The other a more seasoned leader named Jenn Xer.

Their walk took them to the bank of the Rio Grande. While gazing at the water, Milly asked, “I wonder what will ensure that we will still have what it takes to be effective leaders into the future?”

Jenn responded, “Not sure… but I would imagine that we must keep our hard leadership skills strong. Being seen as an expert whose knowledge of leadership is deep and robust would be vitally important.”

At that moment, Jenn and Milly’s eyes were drawn to the river’s edge where there rested a relic from which words of wisdom emanated. This relic, known as Russell T. Kann, was a well-worn soul with many signs of wear and tear. His friends may have called him Boomer.

To Jenn’s views Russell retorted, “You are partially correct. But if you want to secure your futures as leaders, you must build a foundation for remaining relevant as the world around you changes.”

“We, like our nonprofit organizations, must engage in the hard work of change if we are to remain relevant in an ever and rapidly changing world. So… remaining relevant is the golden key to leadership success over time.”

“My friends never called me ‘Boomer’, but they do call me Rusty. So… Rusty Tin Kann am I. I have not always been a Rusty Tin Kann. At one time, like you, my outside was clean and fresh, without dents, dings and rust and I was shiny on the inside. Today I am well-worn but still shiny on the inside because I have adopted the critical ‘habits of relevance.’ These habits have saved me from becoming irrelevant. These habits are:
  • Committing to actively reading the world’s new realities ;

  • Subscribing to life-long learning ;

  • Mentoring emerging leaders; and

  • Adopting the traits associated with Critical Thinking

Subscribe to these habits early in your career and you will ensure your relevancy throughout life.” With that Rusty retreated to the serene ambience of the flowing Rio Grande.

Jenn and Milly quietly pondered his words and were grateful for their encounter with the wise, old mentor, Russell T. Kann.

The Habits of Relevancy

Habit #1: Committing to Actively Reading the World’s New Realities

The criticality for a leader to first establish a position of relevance in the organization and the community and then maintaining that relevance over time cannot be understated (Beerel 2009). Regardless of leaders’ personal mission or leadership brand, it is of the utmost importance that the goal of remaining relevant is always at the top of their mind. If leaders allow their relevance to take a back seat to other priorities, their attraction from the followers’ perspective may wane. They may find themselves engaging in dysfunctional behavior, personal decay, and ultimately disappear into a relevance abyss out of which they cannot climb; fading into a zone of irrelevance.

The development and maintenance of relevance is directly proportional to the leader’s appetite to search for and respond to emerging new realities. Leaders often do not read the signs of impending new realities and when they do, they do not respond appropriately. New realities insidiously creep up on us as small virtually opaque events and ultimately reveal themselves as ominous game changers.

Consider the boiled frog fable. This fable describes a frog being slowly boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in cold water which is then brought to a boil slowly or incrementally, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. Although the results of this experiment have been questioned, it stills serves as an effective metaphor on how leaders can become irrelevant due to their failure to perceive change and the new realities that emanate from the change.

The struggle with dealing with new realities prepares us, in many ways, to approach our leadership with integrity and authenticity. As we unearth new realities and bring them into the light, we discover new truths. Much like the saying that what one perceives becomes one’s reality, new realities equal new truths. The leadership challenge is to grapple with the truth while working toward alignment with that truth. This leads us to becoming change leaders as opposed to change managers.

Pledging to Be a Change Leader Versus a Change Manager

New realities signal the need for robust change. Change is the one factor that in today’s world is a constant and sets in motion the generation of new realities. Irrelevancy is a direct by-product of a leader’s miscarriage when it comes to facing change. When the world around the leader changes at a much faster pace than the leader changes, then irrelevancy sets in (Warren 2012, 0:37). Being blind to this fundamental reality puts the leader and the nonprofit organization in peril relative to future relevancy. Small, incremental changes add up to very large and sometimes catastrophic effects and place the leader in a position of peril relative to maintaining relevancy. These changes occur frequently and at a lightning pace. A leader’s consciousness of these changes may be impaired due to a sense of contentment with the leader’s station in the organization.

Change guru, John P. Kotter (2012) describes an eight-stage process for leading change. The first stage targets the need for change leaders to establish a sense of urgency around the needed change. Although this sense of urgency is the driving force behind motivating change, Kotter would suggest that leaders often fall into a pattern of complacency or contentment and as a result are not onboard when a new reality ship sails.

Being a relevant leader requires 70–90% leadership and only 10–30% management. Therefore, in order for leaders to create a sense of urgency within themselves to change, they must focus on self-leading versus self-managing when it comes to moving the needle relative to self-change. We have come to know that management is a set of processes that can keep a complicated system running. When the leader is that complicated system, the focus is on “what” and “how” of mediating self-change. For decades, business schools have been teaching people how to manage.

However, in order for leaders to remain relevant, they need to experience a shift in consciousness which focuses them on the processes of leadership versus management. These leadership processes include creating their personal vision which defines what their future should look like, aligning themselves and others with that vision, and creating within themselves and others a passion for action despite the obstacles that will be in their way. Beerel (2009) suggests that in order for leaders to effectively navigate through this shift in consciousness, they must develop strong adaptive capacity and employ adaptive strategies (Leadership). This differs from engaging in technical capacity (Management) and deploying coping strategies. Coping strategies are less assertive, energy consuming, and creative than adaptive strategies. Coping resigns leaders to passively accepting the inevitable changes in their world. It is transactional leadership at its best. Whereas adaptation requires leaders to engage these changes head on and demand meeting these changes on their own terms. Adaptation requires deep and robust learning, risk-taking, alertness, agility, and energy. It is transformational leadership at its best.

Mature adaptive capacity provides leaders with improved chances of healthy survival and ongoing relevance in what is otherwise a very chaotic environment. It makes leaders more resilient.

So, if becoming a change leader increases the probability of ongoing relevance, why is it so hard to achieve? There are many reasons, but one of the most powerful obstacles of self-change is the presence of clashes of deeply held values and a requirement that the leader engage in self-transformation.

Courageously Facing Loss and the Emotions Associated with It

Remaining relevant in a persistent and pervasively changing world will require leaders to examine their most closely held values and beliefs and, if necessary, modify or change those values to align with changing times. Identifying these value tensions is the first step in defining the adaptive challenge (Heifetz 1994). Once the adaptive challenges have been named, adaptive work begins.

This is a painful process because the leader’s deepest and most closely held values have been formulating and morphing for many years. These values have been woven into a seemingly instinctual tapestry of impulses which drive the leader’s perceptual, thought, problem solving, and decision-making processes to name a few. The tapestry is a reflection of the leader’s soul and an expression of their humanity.

Responding to new realities therefore may require the leader to give up or mediate their values and this consequently results in immediate loss since something is given up. All change, good or bad, results in loss. Even change emanating from a welcomed new reality impacts one’s self-esteem or sense of self (Beerel 1998; Heifetz 1994).

Mitigating the pain that comes from value tension may rest in understanding the two types of values, Terminal and Instrumental (Rokeach 1973). Terminal values refer to the goals a person would like to achieve during his or her lifetime. They include values like happiness, self-respect, recognition, inner harmony, leading a prosperous life, and professional excellence. Instrumental values on the other hand deal with views on acceptable modes of conduct or means of achieving the terminal values. These include being honest, sincere, ethical, and ambitious. These values are more focused on personality traits and character.

Values and belief systems may consciously or unconsciously drive us to certain work environments which are congruent with those values. When the environment changes and no longer supports our closely held values, we may be tempted to move onto greener pastures. However tempting this may be, with the volatility that exists in today’s environment, leaders may find themselves moving from one company environment to another with some degree of regularity.

Vlachoutsicos (2013) suggests another solution. Although authenticity is an admirable virtue, it can get one into trouble if personal values clash with environmental realities. Therefore, it is suggested that one prioritize their terminal and instrumental values. Then if the need arises, make decisions about which values are most important given the situation. This may seem like a game of manipulation, but it can be effective in mitigating any values discord. Once the values dissonance subsides or is remediated, then the leader can focus on the issue of relevance as it relates to exercising power.

Exercising Power in a Legitimate Fashion

Nonprofit leaders often shy away from the concept of power because it has historically been seen as the shadow side of leadership and as a tool used for the wrong purposes. Yet the amassing of power and use of it, regardless of its tainted image, for the purposes of advancing a venerable mission is not only wise but necessary in a rapidly changing environment.

Power and relevance go hand in hand. Leaders who are seen as powerful are those who can get things done and are therefore relevant. A leader who is without power loses their seat at the table and therefore their ability to influence. As a result, the leader is relegated to a position of irrelevance.

It may be instructive for nonprofit leaders to assimilate the lessons learned about the effective use of power from their social activist counterparts. These leaders work to create change and remain relevant influencers in the community. They hold a sophisticated view of power and typically utilize different approaches as necessary to effectuate change. These approaches include “power over” and “power with” as first described by Mary Parker Follet (Teske and Tetreault 2000; Mele and Rosanas 2003).

The type of individual power which is most known but also most misused is positional power or “power over.” This is power which is accumulated as a result of the leader’s role, title, and position. This type of power may be the least effective way of remaining relevant because of an evolving culture where deference to power is becoming lower.

On the other hand, power which is created as a result of effective development of networks (Network Power), possession of knowledge (Knowledge Power), and the ability to inspire trust and enthusiasm from others (Personality Power) carry with them the theme of “power with” and will be very effective in growing one’s relevance in the community. These sources of power could best be described as Relational or Engaged Power. When a leader is viewed as significant, it means they exercise power that has traction when engaging others. Engaged power equals relevance.

In Gamson’s work on power relative to change (1968, 1990), it is suggested that there are two different kinds of power; Power-in-Repose and Power-in-Use. Power-in-repose is potential power and represents the bank of personal power assets that the leader has built. It is a way of conceptualizing the leader’s intrapersonal strength. Power-in-use is manifested in real outcomes or concrete changes that the leader has driven. Power-in-use can be further broken down into two distinct categories. The first is the gaining of new advantages. A leader’s power is determined by whether they can bring about the specific outcomes for which they battle. The second kind of power-in-use is the gaining of acceptance. Does the leader have a seat at the table? The degree of strength a leader possesses in each of these categories will translate directly to their position of influence in the community.

In order to subjugate positional power and advance relational power, leaders must be comfortable in their own skin. Only self-aware, self-reflective, and secure leaders can employ relational power to secure their place of influence in the community.

Habit #2: Subscribing to Life-Long Learning

Achieving and maintaining relevance involves a commitment to the hard work of learning. Much like adaptive organizations which are fundamentally continuous learning organizations (Argyris 1999), adaptive leaders must be life-long learners. In order to strengthen one’s adaptive capacity, adaptive strategies must supplant coping strategies. This requires a promise to build one’s theoretical and applied knowledge bank and be prepared to share this knowledge with everyone who has a stake in making the adjustments needed to successfully face new realities. More importantly, leaders need to go beyond the acquisition of new information and enter the realm of transformative learning where they create for themselves new understandings, paradigms, strategies, and behavior. The adaptive leader is more than a creative, inventive, and risk-taking trailblazer. They engage learning in a way that allows them to “know differently” through exploring, inquiring, searching, and reflecting and in the end knowing for the first time.

To that end, the foundational characteristics of a learning leader include the following (Beerel 2009, p. 20):
The leader….
  • Is open to new realities in the environment.

  • Allows new realities to flow in and does not block, check, filter or unduly try to control them.

  • Looks at the new realities from multiple perspectives and conducts reality checks for each new reality.

  • Recognizes that new realities require new learning and that learning is experiential so risk taking becomes an accepted practice.

  • Recognizes that learning is affective as well as cognitive, so self-reflection becomes an accepted practice and emotions are named and managed.

  • Reaches out in a multidisciplinary way to gain a broader perspective on the learning that is taking place

  • Seeks active and constructive feedback regarding conclusions that are being drawn relative to the learning that is taking place.

The following definition of insanity, “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” (Einstein n.d.) may explain some failures in executing adaptive strategies. Leaders may seem insane in that they hold onto and execute the same intervention strategies that have left them falling short in the past. Discarding or revisiting entrenched behaviors or old problem-solving strategies becomes more and more difficult as time goes by. They in fact become habits which are implemented without thought or care.

Therefore, unlearning is a very necessary part of the learning process. If a leader is to adapt, they must be prepared to unlearn, give up, reorient, and change.

A leader who engages in life-long learning is certain to remain a person of influence. Adopting the traits of a critical thinker will enhance the leader’s learning process.

Habit #3: Mentoring Emerging Leaders

Being an effective mentor brings with it a cache of relevance chits regardless of one’s stage in their professional career. Although being effective as a mentor is blind to age, as neophyte leaders face new realities, it is most valuable to have a mentor who is in or approaching the winter of their careers. Why? It is so because as mentors who are in the Mature Adulthood stage of their careers (Ages 50–80) are blessed with the gift of Benevolence (Armstrong n.d.). These mentors have had vast experience, established themselves in their work life, and become contributors to the betterment of society. They have and may continue to work toward the betterment of the community. New Realities have become a part of their existence and if they have developed the habits of relevance, they likely have learned many lessons from their successes and failures in navigating these new realities. Chances are many have benefited from their benevolence and without a doubt, we all can learn from their example to give more of ourselves to others. For those clearly in the winter of their careers, late Adulthood age 80+, wisdom is their mantra (Armstrong n.d.). These mentors have lived long lives and have amassed a wealthy bank of experiences that they can use to help guide others. Elders thus represent the source of wisdom that exists in each of us, helping us to avoid the mistakes of the past while reaping the benefits of life’s lessons (Armstrong n.d.).

As a young leader, facing new realities without the experience of having to deal with the ambiguity often attached to these new realities can be ominous. Yet, although overwhelming, there remains a strong desire to succeed. As emerging leaders climb the leadership ladder, there is one common problem that sets the bottom of the ladder on fire. That is, not having a trusted advisor to help them navigate the new realities.

This is where mature leaders can maintain their relevance. They can serve as the trusted advisors to the new generation of leaders. The emerging leaders’ supervisors are typically and understandably immersed in transactional leadership activity. The wise mentor, on the other hand, can engage the emerging leader in a relationship which is transformational in nature.

The wise leader knows that transformative change results from engaging in deep and robust learning. They also know all about the pain associated with that learning; the testing of one’s self-esteem and sense of self. The wise mentor, who has been engaged in the habits of relevance, will be able to impart knowledge and exemplify through their experience how they have discovered how to face new realities. They have the luxury of being both the “sage on the stage” as well as the “guide on the side.”

The inner workings of mentoring vis-à-vis executive coaching are a subject for another time. Suffice it to say that evolving into an effective mentor will ensure one’s relevance into the future.

Habit #4: Adopting the Traits Associated with Critical Thinking

Foundational to a leader’s development and maintenance of relevance is the ability to think critically. The process and implementation of the skills related to critical thinking serves as the driving force behind the other three habits of relevance; reading the world’s new realities, subscribing to life-long learning, and mentoring emerging leaders. And, like these other habits, the engagement of critical thinking is not a process without pain. The popular exercise motto, “no pain, no gain” promises greater rewards for the price of hard and even painful work (Exercise Motto 2020). Under this conception, it can be deduced that leaders who are on the path of ensuring their relevance will certainly be required to endure pain (mental/emotional suffering) to be successful in that quest. David B. Morris (2005) wrote “‘No pain, no gain’ is an American modern mini-narrative. It might reflect the story of a nonprofit leader who has come to understand that the road to successfully facing new realities runs only through hardship.”

Critical thinking thought leaders, Elder and Paul (2013), suggest that leaders don’t have to work at being self-justifying, self-serving, and self-deceptive thinkers. It is a natural state of being for most people. Therefore, only through critical thinking can leaders change whatever needs changing in their thinking process in order to be successful in their pursuit of relevance. There are three components to developing as a critical thinker (Elder and Paul 2012); Standards, Elements and Intellectual Traits. Although each of these is paramount to developing as a critical thinker, the Standards and Elements are more viewed as external skill building processes whereas the development of Intellectual Traits requires the leader to engage in deep intrapersonal reflection and change if they are to become relevant thought leaders. The ability to ferret out the most perilous of new realities bombarding the leader will require them to be fair-minded thinkers. A fair-minded thinker is one who has the “…predisposition to consider all relevant viewpoints equally, without reference to one’s own feelings or self-interests, or the feelings or selfish interests of one’s friends, community or nation…” (Elder and Paul 2012, p. 5). The focus, therefore, will be on developing intellectual traits.
  • Intellectual Humility Versus Intellectual Arrogance

    The leader must be comfortable in conceding to the limits of their knowledge. They must also be conscious of how their native egocentrism may function to lure them into drawing conclusions which are not grounded in logic but are a function of self-deception, bias and prejudice. The abandonment of intellectual arrogance will aid the leader in dealing effectively with new realities and move the needle in the direction of developing and maintaining relevance in the eyes of their followers.

  • Intellectual Courage Versus Intellectual Cowardice

    The leader must be content in examining ideas and beliefs which imbue in them negative thoughts and emotions. The leader must courageously examine ideas and beliefs which for them may on the surface seem precarious or ludicrous. In giving these ideas a fair hearing, the leader may come to know that these ideas may have some validity and bear some truth. Embracing Intellectual Courage will aid the leader in dealing more effectively with new realities and move the needle in the direction of developing and maintaining relevance in the eyes of their followers.

  • Intellectual Empathy Versus Intellectual Narrow-Mindedness

    The leader must be adept at placing themselves in the place of others to gain a sense of understanding of others’ viewpoints and belief systems. This too will take the focus off the leader’s self-centered conclusions about reality and allow room for differing realities. This process will conjure up memories of how the leader came to realize that they were wrong in the past, even though they had very powerful beliefs that they were right. The ability to be Intellectually Empathic by being able to walk in another person’s shoes will aid the leaders in dealing effectively with new realities and move the needle in the direction of developing and maintaining relevance in the eyes of their followers.

  • Intellectual Autonomy Versus Intellectual Conformity

    Leaders may have learned that the path to least resistance is found when one “goes along to get along.” Conforming to the socio-centric beliefs of one’s family, ethnic group, religious sector, political party and so on represents narrow-minded vs. fair-minded thinking. Leaders who are willing to think for themselves and take a stand which may be unpopular are not only autonomous thinkers but courageous ones as well. The courage to be an independent/autonomous thinker will aid the leader in dealing effectively with new realities and move the needle in the direction of developing and maintaining relevance in the eyes of their followers.

  • Intellectual Integrity Versus Intellectual Hypocrisy

    Integrity is a hallmark of ethical leadership. Integrity is found when what the leader says is congruent with what the leader does. They “walk the talk.” Intellectual Integrity is present when the leader holds themselves accountable using the same rigorous standards that they may apply when judging another’s values or beliefs. Being viewed as a hypocrite does not bode well for the leader who is pursing relevance. Leaders who imbue integrity into their being will deal more effectively with New Realities and move the needle in the direction of developing and maintaining relevance in the eyes of their followers.

  • Intellectual Perseverance Versus Intellectual Laziness

    Leaders must be willing to push forward in their journey to find the truth despite the difficulties, obstacles and frustrations that will confront them. They must stay the course and adhere to the guiding principles which have launched them on this journey despite those who would be antagonistic to their quest or the unsettling nature of unanswered questions or opaque information. Leaders who doggedly persist in the face of adversity will deal more effectively with new realities and move the needle in the direction of developing and maintaining relevance in the eyes of their followers.

  • Confidence in Reason Versus Distrust of Reason and Evidence

    Leaders are self-assured that in the long run their own and their followers’ best interests will be served by giving reason free reign. By role-modeling the other intellectual traits and having confidence that everyone can grow into these traits, leaders will be able to effectively deal with new realities and develop and maintain relevance in the eyes of their followers.

  • Fair-mindedness Versus Intellectual Unfairness

    Leaders not only abhor sophistry but challenge sophists through the effective use of critical thinking strategies. They are fair-minded in that they treat all viewpoints alike without deference to their own egocentric or sociocentric proclivities. Leaders who are fair-minded will be able to effectively deal with new realities and develop and maintain relevance in the eyes of their followers.


Leaders who aspire to be relevant in their work and maintain that relevance throughout their careers, well into winter of their professional life, need to embrace the habits of relevance and tend to them throughout their lives. In the words of Annabel Beerel, when facing new realities “mature adaptive capacities provide us with resilience…. and resilience improves the chances of healthy survival in a world of change” (Beerel 2009, p. 12).

Let us all strive to be relevant leaders.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Public Administration – College of Arts and LettersFlorida Atlantic UniversityBoca RatonUSA