How Strong Leaders Solve Their Big Problems

Running an organization is not an easy thing. I did it for seven years and know for a fact it’s actually a hard, messy, emotional thing. It is also, of course, fulfilling and satisfying.

But that last part was easy to forget when I was running things, especially when it came down to budget season.

I hated budget season. Most nonprofits do. I went through it exactly seven times.

Each time my team would take our best intentions and put them to paper. We’d figure out our expenses in the coming year, how our projected revenue would stack up, and what kind of hole resulted when you put the two together.

Then we had to make the cuts.

We always had to make cuts. All seven times I gathered my team together, and we made cuts.

Sometimes it was programs. Sometimes it was personnel. Sometimes it was pens and paper.

Each time it was awful.

One year I was in the middle of one of these meetings. Our charge was to cut or find or magically create about $100,000.

There we sat – among our cold coffee and our stale Oreos – bickering about where our priorities should be, about how we would keep our lights on and our food bank stocked.

Then, after about two hours, I did something I knew I needed to do…the thing that would make me better at leading this charge in the long run.

I got out of there.

It was a Monday. I was in the middle of getting my masters degree. Class was at 4:30.

I needed to go.

I needed to go because I needed to get to class.  But I also needed to go because…I needed to go.

It’s funny, it was only after my seven-years at that nonprofit were over, it was only when I looked back, that I realized how I always got myself out of there.

Each year, while I worked my butt off for the organization, I also deeply engaged myself in something else.  

That something else was always completely different than running a nonprofit. That something else involved people who weren’t in that world…who really didn’t care about it.

  • My first year as an executive director: I was in a community theater production
  • The next few years: I got my masters degree
  • After that: I played in poker tournaments a few times each week
  • Now: I’m into weight training

While each of these was very different, they all had one important thing in common.

They had absolutely nothing to do with my day job.

Each one also…

  • Required a significant amount of energy and time
  • Opened my eyes to something new
  • Had its own set of challenges

Here’s the thing. By getting involved in something completely different, something that took its own level of focus, something where others didn’t care about my day job, I was forced to leave work behind for a few hours.

I was forced to get out of my own head.

And when I went back to the office I had a whole new perspective.

I realized that I was not the only one dealing with tough challenges. I realized my problem was simply one more issue that could be overcome.   That would be overcome.

Great leaders know that getting out of their own heads – even for just a few hours – can make all the difference in solving a problem, in coming up with an innovative idea, in realizing they’re not alone, in realizing their situation isn’t that special.

I’m not going to lie. I resisted the lesson for a while.

There I’d be at the poker table, obsessing over my latest cash flow problem. I’d turn to the guy next to me and the conversation would go something like this:

Me: Man, tough day at work today

Poker Playing Guy: Oh yeah? That stinks

Me: Yeah, not sure how I’m going to make payroll next week

Poker Playing Guy (shrugging): I’m sure you’ll figure it out

Poker Playing Guy (to the guy next to him): Did you just fold a pair of 8s?

Whenever I tried to explain my stress to others it pretty much went down this way. They pretended to get it. They pretended to care. But in the end, they didn’t do either.

And, really, why should they?

And so I stopped talking about it. I stopped whining. I focused on the task in front of me. I focused away from the problems I left behind at the office.

It was the best thing I could do.

If you want to be great at your job, you need to get out of it. You need to force yourself to get some perspective.  You need to get a life.

What doesn’t count? Something that is tedious, no fun, or sucks your remaining energy without filling you with any kind of satisfaction.

For me this means:

  • Carpooling to the soccer game doesn’t count
  • Spring cleaning doesn’t count
  • Getting my oil changed doesn’t count

Luckily I figured out what did count. And on that particular Monday, as stressed as I was, I didn’t bother discussing my cuts to anyone when I got to class.

After all, my story wasn’t that unique. All nonprofits struggle. All nonprofits have to make cuts.

I did. Seven times.

And I’ll tell you this. When I got back to work the next morning, we found our $100,000.

Part of the reason we figured it out? Because I got out of there when I needed to.

This week, figure out what might get you out of your head, make you think bigger, perhaps learn things you can bring to your office the next day.

I promise – the people, the work , the problems you face today will all look different tomorrow.

And chances are you’ll handle them all just a little bit better as a result.

Now, go do good…and do it well.





4 responses to “How Strong Leaders Solve Their Big Problems”

  1. Emily Davis Avatar

    I LOVE THIS! It’s totally true for me as a new ED. It’s actually amazing how many breaks I need to take just to get some perspective and breathe, but it really works. This has also been completely true with writing my book and I’ve even hired a coach who tells me to take a break.

    As usual, you are right on with great advice. Thanks for this one!!

  2. Nonprofit Chapin Avatar

    Wonderful post. This especially pertains to EDs, but it is also true for anyone who puts their heart and soul into their job, whether you’re an ED, Program Director, or even a dedicated Development Coordinator like myself. The day to day work gets put into a different perspective when you take a break – a necessary one that helps you focus on what’s important when you return.

  3. Patty Costa Avatar
    Patty Costa

    Thanks again Deirdre for words of wisdom. I need to take breaks from stressful situations and as the old saying goes, “things will look better in the morning” and they do!

  4. Gail Dillon Avatar

    I like how you brought yourself and your fun experiences to this post..or should I say not so fun experiences!!