PLC’s annual leadership development program, Leading from the Middle, came to a close on May 29, 2019. This is the fourth year in a row that PLC has run this program and every year there is so much more we learn from the facilitators as well as the thoughtful and committed participants. This free, five-week program has been well-received since its first year and we hope that with the learnings and experience we gain with each session that we continue to grow the program, deepen its impact, and reach more emerging leaders.

This program is designed to not only develop more leaders to fill the looming leadership gap, but to also help middle managers be more effective in their roles now. Every week we would check in with participants and they would share how they’re implementing their new leadership strategies and approaches. We were constantly impressed by the participants’ practice of their new skills and how results and positive outcomes quickly emerged.

Here, we’re going to share some of the greatest nonprofit leadership lessons we learned from Leading from the Middle, 2019.


Workshop 1 – The Art of Leadership

Begin with a commitment. Our facilitator challenged us to begin by truly committing to the program and to do everything we could over the following five weeks to improve our leadership; to step into the office tomorrow believing that we’re leaders and behaving in the way we believe great leaders ought to. In order to anchor this behaviour, our facilitator shared their foundational leadership competencies:

  • Self awareness and vulnerability – This is about understanding our strengths, growth opportunities, limits, boundaries and seeking feedback that leads to continuous improvement.
  • Authenticity and approachability – Do we put people at ease? Are we easy to talk to? Can people come to us because they feel comfortable with us and that we’re sensitive and patient with their needs?
  • Dealing with ambiguity – Risk, change, uncertainty, vagueness; learning to embrace them is part of leadership because they are all inevitable.
  • Interpersonal savvy – Can we build relationships with all kinds of people, in a variety of circumstances and situations? Inside our organizations, outside, in opposition and conflict, are we able to create productive partnerships?
  • Integrity – Strong communications skills, trustworthy, humble.
  • Trust – This is about building rapport because we communicate candor, expertise, dependability and compatibility.
  • Empathy – Seeking to understand from a place of genuine curiosity and respect.
  • Listening – Deep listening allows us to forge greater connections.


Workshop 2 – Becoming an Emotionally Intelligent Leader

If there is any doubt as to the importance and relevance of EQ, or Emotional Intelligence, our facilitator shared studies with us that show a person who is emotionally intelligent will be promoted more quickly than someone with poor emotional intelligence but with the same IQ. Emotional intelligence can elevate our influence and effectiveness. Managing and driving the emotional climate of our teams can help us generate greater hope, optimism and resilience as well as increased motivation, clearer thinking and higher quality relationships.

But before we can create this mindful and harmonious environment within our teams, we must first learn to master it within ourselves. In this session we learned to identify the kinds of events that can trigger negative responses in ourselves. By identifying and understanding our own triggers, we can start to reprogram our responses to be more productive. And in the ‘doing’, we demonstrate the behaviours and practices we desire in our teams.

Enhancing our Emotional Intelligence can improve our leadership and help us learn so much more about ourselves, as well as learn to understand others, including our teams, much better. We can learn to master our emotions, communicate more effectively with our teams, and reduce the mistakes we may make in interpreting people’s feelings and reactions.

Enhancing our Emotional Intelligence can help us

  • ‘read a room’, and understand a group’s readiness for, and reaction to, new information
  • understand our own feelings and set clear, personal intentions about managing our reactions to situations
  • know when and how to diffuse and/or otherwise manage tense situations


Workshop 3 – Courageous Conversations

The purpose of this workshop was to equip participants with the tools they need in order to begin and facilitate productive conversations on topics that can cause conflict, are highly emotional or high-pressured, and that generally go undiscussed because they are simply too difficult. We were encouraged to imagine a world where we can openly share views, express doubt and concerns, feel heard and that decisions and actions are made based on evidence not emotion. Learning to do this is critical for effective leadership because it can build a culture of accountability, collaboration and trust.

In order to have these courageous conversations, we must also assess the culture of our organization or of our team. This culture can be understood as either a “Culture of Silence” or as a “Culture of Inquiry”. In a Culture of Silence we tend to work in silos, conversations are often not encouraged and are actively shut-down, work is delayed, blame is passed around, people are on edge and are often jumping to conclusions. However, in a Culture of Inquiry, it is understood that risk-taking leads to innovation, responsibility and accountability are shared, there are honest conversations at all levels of the organization, people are unafraid to ask tough questions, and high-quality teamwork is producing desired outcomes.

Where would you rather work?

If we want to build a culture of inquiry in our teams (and our organizations) we can begin with improving our conversations. Sometimes other work around culture needs to be done first, however, middle managers can start improving their team cultures by having and encouraging better conversations. An agenda for a courageous conversation might include the following:

  • What we want to accomplish with this conversation
  • Ground Rules and Guidelines – how we will have this conversation
  • Strengths – from the team member’s perspective and from the manager’s perspective
  • Areas of Development – from the team member’s perspective and from the manager’s perspective
  • Next Steps – how will we move forward? How will we measure results? When will we reconvene?

After the conversation it is important to reflect on what we learned, what our assumptions were and how they were challenged, what is the impact and what are the outcomes of this conversation? Intentional communications with the goal of improving our team culture can build strong foundations in our teams and our organizations.


Workshop 4 – Mastering Financial Management

Nonprofit financial management means that we manage our organization’s resources in such a way that it helps the organization fulfill its mission and the organization remains solvent. It sounds pretty simple, but there is so much to learn about nonprofit finances. This year, we even had two accountants participating in Leading from the Middle and they were able to build on their skills in this workshop. Specifically, the learned why it’s so important to engage staff members in developing and managing budgets, and how to involve them in the process. Good financial management and leadership is as much about communications as it is about numbers. Everyone in the organization has a role to play in creating and maintaining our budgets – at the program level and at the organizational level more broadly. Whether it’s accountability, opinion about spending, or relaying information about program costs, we all have a role to play in our organization’s financial plan.


Workshop 5 – Putting it into Practice and Reflection

Reflection is such a critical component to learning. Especially when the learning is about personal growth and so-called ‘soft skills’. Our leadership is something so personal and, ultimately, we must develop it internally. These workshops shared strategies, tools, approaches and perspectives but it is up to everyone to define and practice their own leadership. Constantly.

In the ‘reflection’ session we looked back at where we were in session one and where we are now – how far we’ve come! We developed a roadmap for our leadership journey and identified so many of our own strengths and opportunities for growth. We explored our greatest lessons from the program, what the biggest surprise was in learning about ourselves, our most valuable insights, and our ultimate leadership goals.

A leadership journey is never ending as we strive to grow and improve everyday. In the nonprofit sector, effective, powerful and compassionate leadership is particularly important because the most vulnerable people, environments and animals rely on us to carryout our duties. Our communities are depending on us.

If you are interested in Leading from the Middle, be sure to sign up for PLC’s newsletter because that is where we always announce registration! The next session is currently planned for May 2020.

If you have participated in Leading from the Middle and you think there are key learnings we’ve missed here, feel free to let us know in the comments below!

Until next time,

The PLC Team




Pin It on Pinterest