I recently mentioned I am working with a local non-profit, the ManKind Project. Before leaving for Jamaica, I spoke with a friend connected with a philanthropic organization about funding opportunities. I had missed the funding window prior to leaving and he guided me through the application process while I was abroad. that the funding was waiting for me played a role in my decision to not stay another year.
I crafted this job thinking it was a chance to help an organization near and dear to my heart. Like many organizations of this type, MKP struggles with finances, membership, outreach, etc. Fortunately, there is an active member who does this type of work for a living and, under his tutelage, I've made a decent amount of progress. And while I would not consider this a leadership position, more senior members of the community disagree. In fact, the Board of Directors encouraged me to sit on a panel during a recent townhall event so I could explain what I am doing to help MKP and how others can get involved. This seemed like a good idea, and an opportunity to spread the word and enlist others. I envisioned it being a dynamic back-and-forth with ideas and enthusiasm for forward progress. Indeed, those present would line up to help me.
And that is exactly what didn't happen.
For two hours I sat, along with the Board of Directors, at a long table in front of about 100 to 150 men as they peppered us with questions and comments about the state of the organization and what is – or is not – being done to fix it. The Board Chairman calmly introduced me and turned the floor over to me to explain my work, how it would address many of their concerns, and how they could become part of that solution.
Instead, I was met with similar hostility. People demanded to know how my work was different from past efforts. They wanted to know why MKP could not just take the grant money and use it to pay debts. Who was I, they fumed, to think that I could just waltz in and fix things?
The situation reminded me of two things. First was the Latino community center I helped organize back in 2005-06. There was a lot riding on the outcome of that effort too, not to mention hostile attitudes, needless drama, and, at times, more time spent on conflict management than actual substance. Second, it reminded me of the lesson I was taught around that same time; the lesson of needing to put myself in a vulnerable spot of "not knowing" and being a novice to find my greatest growth.
The experience also brought the larger theme of leadership into greater focus. MKP compares assuming a role of leadership to wearing a target. As soon as a community or organization sees it, they begin firing, which is how it felt to me during the townhall meeting. Because I am interested in the topic, I have researched various definitions of leadership. Most of them are a variation of successfully getting a group of people to accomplish a common goal. Sounds very nice and uplifting. And the idea is central to leadership, but it conveniently omits the fact that leadership is as much about dealing with the unpleasant, painful, and exasperating moments as it is achieving positive outcomes. Perhaps this is why so many people avoid it. The price, for them, is simply too high. It may also explain poor leadership - repeatedly absorbing fire, friendly or otherwise, is not for everyone.