Follow the signs, not the people

Do you remember the childhood game, Follow the Leader? One child is chosen to be the leader, the rest of the children line up behind, and everyone copies the movements of the line leader (like doing jumping jacks, hopping on one leg, clapping your hands, etc.). Fun times with the only consequence being that if you fail to copy the movement of the leader, you sit out until the next game starts.

It was fun to be the leader, doing any movement you wanted and knowing that everyone had to follow suit in order to stay in the game. Whether we realize it or not, many of us are playing this same game today, only the adult version. At work, we follow the direction of our company’s leaders and execute our work assignments as we are trained to do. At church we listen to our pastor, priest, rabbi, or Iman interpret scripture and offer us guidance on how to live faithfully. During political campaign seasons, we hang on to the words of our favorite candidates, embracing their campaign promises as being the right way to govern.

On a recent trip, my wife and I were winding our way through the Las Vegas airport towards our terminal to catch our flight home. Thanks to the handy-dandy TSA Pre-Check line, we moved through the TSA checkpoint with lightning speed. As we turned a corner, we thought we were merging back into the throng of fellow travelers who were exiting the regular checkpoint lines. So, we followed them. Turns out, it was a different group of travelers exiting a recent arrival from the adjacent gate. Completely unaware of our mistake, we blindly followed this group (maybe waiting for one of them to start hopping on one leg or something) all the way down the escalator to the baggage claim area.

At that point, we realized what we had done and found an airport attendant. My wife embarrassingly explained our mistake and asked the best way back to the tram that would take us to our terminal. After some quick directions, the attendant concluded her business with us with a rather sarcastic final shot, saying “You have to follow the signs, not the people.”

In our nonprofit work, we value and admire the impressively credentialed board of directors, the wise and inspirational chief executive, the experienced operational and strategic program leaders, and the culture-building supervisors and team leaders. Who among us doesn’t have an example of our organization blindly following the money trail and willingly accepting restrictions on how we can use funds provided by government, foundation, and philanthropic investors?

At its best, trusting the intentions of our leaders, supervisors, funders, and other partners can help us achieve missional impact. We want to believe that we are taking inspiration and direction from informed and thoughtful people. We need to depend on their direction to be driven by strategy, empathy, and understanding of the circumstances surrounding our work. But what happens when decision-makers attempt to lead based on personality, or wit, or influence, but lack the important perspective that comes from data, facts, and truth? What happens when they are not willing to follow the signs?

Trusting data, facts and truth is the best check and balance we have against rogue decision-making that is not in the best interest of those we serve. Providing real data on the causes and effects of key societal challenges should guide nonprofit leaders in creating solution-focused services. Audits and accurate financial statements and employee satisfaction feedback are critically important signs of an organization’s fiscal health. Year-over-year data showing growth or dips in revenue patterns are essential to planning for growth and sustainability. Listening to donors, volunteers, and community partners offers signs of strength or weakness in community trust and goodwill. Paying attention to case workers, mental health professionals, artists and performers, teachers, and other direct-line staff who can signal where impact is being achieved or pain points are emerging in missional success.

Real leaders take the time to understand the issues they are called to address. While not always clear and easy to follow, looking for the signs, and following them, will keep you in the game, and maybe not ending up in baggage claim instead catching your plane home.

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