We received a project proposal a few days ago, this one from one of our longer-standing partners. It’s a cooperative that we have admired for its vision, its holistic approach to the well-being of its members and the progressive leadership of its president. They plan and act in ways that strengthen their cooperative as well as the communities in which their members are located. In addition to being a reliable loan partner, the have served as a model, of sorts, to less developed coops who wonder what a strong cooperative really looks like. We hold a great deal of respect for what they have accomplished, against long odds, and for what they aspire to do in the future: yes, they plan strategically.
When I read the project proposal, I once again noted all of the strengths which drew us to them initially. But I also noted the frequency with which the charismatic president of the coop was mentioned: in addition to the entire introductory section of the proposal being essentially about him, he was also referenced five other times as an initiator of something good in the cooperative. Clearly, his humility notwithstanding, he is an important guy within the context of the coop.
His prominence in the proposal gives me pause, however. As essential and visionary as he has been to the success of this group, I wonder about the longer-term effectiveness of his contributions. Without question, he is one of the broadest-thinking leaders I’ve had the pleasure to come across in my travels within Nicaragua. Without doubt, he has carried the progress of the coop on his diminutive shoulders. But without succession, whenever he ceases to lead, all of his organizational ingenuity is likely to become little more than an aftermath, as opposed to a true legacy.
Despite all of the good things going on here, I’m particularly concerned for the future of this coop. Ironically, the very strength of the coop- its leader- also may be its biggest liability. The members’ reliance on their president creates a dependency that will be difficult to manage once their leader is gone. It’s one of the most noticeable challenges encountered in organizational development: balancing the high impacts of a great leader with the need to institutionalize the good things he/she has brought about. As the adage goes, not all of one’s eggs should be in but one basket.
As it’s difficult to argue with success, a leader’s recognition of the need to develop the next generation of capable and caring leadership is often subjugated in importance. The successful leader becomes so engrossed in creating new and successful ideas that there is little time for cultivating the same skills in others. Sometimes the lack of development stems from a “messiah complex,” an ego in the leader which is convinced that there is no one else capable of governing as well. Sometimes it’s purely a perception of too little time. It might be a fear of creating capabilities in others which may eclipse those of the current leader. Or it may be a lack of certainty about how to develop those characteristics in another, a view that prospective successors either “have got it” or they don’t. Whatever the reason, effective succession is the most frequent cause of once-strong entities becoming weak. It’s as true in Nicaragua as it is in the United States. All the greatness of a transformational leader becomes but an historical footnote if he/she has not prioritized succession as the most important piece of his/her legacy. It’s the difference between giving a fish versus teaching to fish.
The good news here is that this leader, among his other strengths, indicates that he sees the critical need for this development in his organization. He has asked for help in addressing how to create future, holistic visionaries from a population limited in education and leadership experience. (This is not hard for him to imagine, as he is limited in his own ability to read or write.) He has begun to avail himself of tools that can develop such succession thinking, in the form of Open Book Management techniques and Lean Process Improvement methodologies. He acknowledges both the organizational importance and potential detriment of his role as a high-impact leader of the organization. These are crucial first steps in a very difficult balance in protecting both the current and future states of the coop, which already exists in a context of significant and sudden changes, whether natural or man-made.
For Winds of Peace, making a loan to an organization which presents reasonable capacity for repayment is relatively simple. A group that is blessed with strong and visionary leadership is more difficult to find. But an organization that recognizes the essential need for excellent next-generation leadership is the difference between a cooperative of the moment and a transformational legacy for the future….