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Nonprofit News: Becoming the leader you always wanted

By “Doc Warren” Corson III June 26, 2017

It is unlikely that you have always been in a leadership role unless you were born into millions of dollars (and even then, working your way up should have been part of the plan). If you were like me, you worked in just about every position before taking the helm.

I was a volunteer, a janitor, a mentor, a case manager, a mental health worker, an intern and several other positions before I became a lead, a supervisor or a director. In those roles, I witnessed many different types of leadership, running the gamut from totally incompetent to ill-informed to sheer brilliance. Everyone who was in a position of leadership over me inspired me to do my best to lead by example, even when they did little more than show me how not to act.


Know the job you are overseeing

Whether you are the boss or a consultant, it is very important to know and understand the jobs you are overseeing. This doesn’t mean that you need to know all the passwords, program languages, software, etc. Rather, it means possessing a good understanding of how they work, how long and how hard the tasks are, and the many facets involved in doing the job well.

Once you have that understanding, your leadership skills can and often will enable you to find ways to make the process a bit easier while ensuring the same (or even better) quality. It also helps with face validity — in this case meaning that folks can see, from simply watching you, that you know what you’re doing and what needs to be done. This can improve employees’ morale and overall outlook.


Remember what it felt like when you weren’t in control

As you climb the ladder, remember how it felt when you were at or near the bottom of an organization. How did your bosses address you? How did it make you feel? Were you able to give input, be productive, make decisions and feel vital? Would you have preferred to have been treated differently? In what way? Do what you can to give those who report to you the treatment you wanted yourself.


Empower and encourage those on your team

Remember your training in industrial psychology. A happy employee is a good and productive employee. Empower those on your team as much as possible to make some level of decisions. Encourage them to think for themselves while staying within the bounds that you set. You just may find that the bottom rungs of the ladder have more insight into your organization’s problems than do those with unobstructed views.


Give everyone a voice and an ear

If the size and scope of your nonprofit program make it realistic, have all-staff meetings whenever possible. Set the stage to welcome thoughts, concerns and ideas from all staff, not just clinical staff. Pose concerns and challenges to your workers and allow them to brainstorm. Most important, LISTEN.

I once worked at a charity that had all-staff meetings periodically. The boss would pose challenges and allow for input. She did seem to give much more weight to those in higher positions and higher educational levels, however. Once, the janitor gave his thoughts on a problem, and the boss quickly dismissed it. I waited a few minutes, started talking and used a few big words to explain “my” thoughts on solving the problem. The boss loved it and immediately implemented it. But it was the janitor’s plan exactly! I had simply dressed it up with professional buzzwords.

Once the boss announced the implementation of the idea, I publically thanked the janitor for his idea. The boss corrected me and said my idea was much better. I explained that I had simply dressed the janitor’s plan in “important buzzwords” and said that we should never get caught up with big words, big job titles or big education: A good idea was a good idea. After she refused to acknowledge him as the creator, I apologized to him for the agency’s lack of vision. (On a separate note, I do not recommend doing this because it could have led to me being found to be insubordinate.)


Provide leadership by example

Remember the old maxim that good bosses will never ask an employee to do something that they wouldn’t do themselves. There may be exceptions, but these exceptions should be based on skillsets and not because certain tasks are deemed “beneath” them. For instance, I will never perform open-heart surgery, climb to the top of a tower to fix a transmission line or take on other tasks I am not qualified to perform, but I will get my hands dirty. If it needs to be done and we are understaffed, I will take out the trash, fix a broken pipe, work in a trench or even build an office, complete with running the electrical, insulation, sheetrock and framing.

When things get tough, it can motivate folks to see those in positions of power working directly alongside them. But again, stay within your competencies. I wouldn’t have engaged in any of the jobs mentioned above had I lacked basic knowledge and skills in those areas.


Maintain an open-door policy

When employees and volunteers feel welcome to interact with you, work gets done. Even though you are busy, establish an atmosphere that calls for inclusion and fellowship. Invite folks in to talk when you can, solicit their opinions and make sincere small talk.


Be prepared to get dirty

As stated earlier, be prepared to go outside your job description. Years ago, in addition to taking part in nonclinical projects, I organized an ice cream social for our staff and volunteers. Our senior staff set up the event, served the ice cream and then cleaned up afterward. This was a small way of showing our staff and volunteers that we cared about them, valued them and wanted to treat them. Although some of our senior staff refused to take part, the majority played a role. Those who did noted a marked increase in positive interactions with other staff members.


Be real

One of my pet peeves is when senior staff members pretend that they are always the boss, even in the real world. If their garbage cans need emptying, their toner gets low or they need something from the supply cabinet, they call someone in to do it for them. I’m pretty sure that most if not all of them have had to take out the trash at home or go to the pantry to get some supplies. If you’re going to be a leader, be real. If you want self-sufficiency from your staff, show some in your own life.




Life can be hard, and leadership is not easy, especially when you are working on a shoestring budget. But a few commonsense techniques can do much to shape your nonprofit program. Make the decision to be the leader you always wanted.






Dr. Warren Corson III

“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling Centers of Central CT Inc. ( and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm ( Contact him at Additional resources related to nonprofit design, documentation and related information can be found at









Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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