Leadership Development and Leadership Change

Leadership Development and Leadership Change is a report on how a group of social justice organizations, in the Bay Area and nationally, have linked leadership development to executive leadership transitions paying particular attention to race, class, gender, and age. The four collaborating organizations that oversaw the project and the production of this report – Partnership for Immigrant Leadership and Action, National Community Development Institute, Movement Strategy Center, and Building Movement Project – have all worked with a diverse group of social change oriented nonprofit organizations on leadership issues. We each participated in this project to learn and share lessons on how organizations approach leadership development and leadership transitions, particularly during a time when nonprofits in California and across the U.S. are going through dramatic demographic and generational shifts.

We know from our work and from others in the field that leadership transition often affects the entire organization. Transition consultants suggest groups prepare by creating a process for leadership shifts and putting in place an emergency plan. In the process, organizations can imagine how everyone would function without the current leader. We found in our interviews, groups going through transitions did best when they also had a commitment to develop organizational staff, and in some cases constituent leadership, in ways that spread knowledge, skills and responsibility. Leadership development also helped to further the organization’s day-to-day ability to accomplish its mission and vision. 

Nonprofits have focused on transition planning in part because of the predictions that the baby boom generation leaders who are entering traditional retirement age will be leaving their jobs and a new generation of leaders is emerging. Now more Boomers are thinking of staying longer in their work to continue to contribute to the field and to maintain an income stream, but many are considering cutting back on their work and distributing leadership within the organization. In addition, executive directors are still overwhelmingly white as noted in the CompassPoint Daring to Lead studies that found only 17% of executive directors were people of color. Yet the demographic changes in the U.S. mean that there should be unprecedented opportunity for people of color to lead organizations.

This shift – to younger generations and to more people of color – will not happen without sustained and systematic development of leaders and attention to how power dynamics impact organizational change. In this project, we focused on how social justice organizations cultivate new leadership and navigate leadership change attending to race, class, gender and generational differences and including people from impacted communities.

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