Being the Boss Lady

Feb 17, 2009 by


Flickr photo by Librarianguish

What is the nature of leadership? I’ve been asking myself this question for years. There are so many different ways of looking at it, thinking about it and dissecting it.

I know that I’ve always wanted to be a leader and I’ve tried to be one. And I’ve spent a lot of time, maybe more than most people due to the nature of my work, thinking about it. But it’s only in the last couple of years that the concept of leadership v. management has been introduced to me. Describing the difference is a bit difficult, but I think Peter Drucker, noted author and management consultant, summed it up succinctly: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

Thus far in my career, I’ve been able to cultivate more skills on the ‘leadership’ side: vision, focus, goals and other ‘soft skills’ in terms of working successfully with people. However, I haven’t had the opportunity to build up many ‘hard skills’ like budgeting, financial management and managing/supervising staff. At this point, my next goals is to work specifically on supervision skills.

I have supervised plenty of interns, which in most nonprofits are basically staff anyway, but no FTEs. However, after supervising these interns, working laterally and having many bosses – a couple good, a couple ok and some very, very bad – I have picked up a few thoughts and ideas about being a good boss.


  • DO make yourself available to those you supervise. Available can mean a lot of things, but in this case, I mean being physically present at work. Of course, you’re not going to be at your desk every second of the day, but being away all day, every day by traveling too much, having too many off-site meetings, etc. isn’t productive. That also means keeping your calendar updated regularly. Personally, I’m a fan of making your calendar ‘public’ through Outlook as well. Transparency goes a long way toward engendering trust. Which leads me to my next point…
  • DO try to act transparently. Not every decision needs a full, 360 degree explanation, but lots of secrecy is frustrating and ultimately disempowering to those you supervise. I also think being transparent means admitting when you’re wrong or when you don’t know the answer. No one is perfect and if you constantly try to hide behind a perfect image, the downfall will be that much harder.
  • DO respond as quickly as you can to important work items. This includes emails, questions, documents, etc. If you need certain items passed through you before going public or moving up the chain of command, don’t slow the whole process down.
  • DO give those you supervise room to grow, be successful and make mistakes. Delegation is a wonderful word and even better concept. Empowering those you supervise to take on responsibilities is a win-win-win situation for all involved. And if they screw up? They will learn something valuable and so will you.


  • DON’T assume your time is more valuable than everyone else’s. I’ve known very few nonprofit employees who haven’t worked the equivalent of 2 or 3 jobs at a time (while only getting paid for 1). Translation: we’re all very busy, almost all the time. It’s selfish at best and disrespectful at worst to ignore other’s work in favor of your own. Of course, there are always going to be items that need to move to the top of the priority list quickly. In that case, at least explain why this item needs to be worked on before the other 10 items your employee needs to get done today (see transperancy bullet above).
  • DON’T make commitments that you and your staff can’t keep. Promising the world to a funder, sponsor or partner does no one any good – especially if you can’t deliver. Putting that extra pressure on your employees (not to mention yourself) just creates all kind of unnecessary stress.
  • DON’T delegate…and then take it back. Keeping tabs on a project or task is absolutely necessary as a manager. But butting back in and taking over a task – especially if your subordinate is doing an adequate job of completing that task – is asinine and inefficient.

What do you think? Are there other DOs and DON’Ts I missed? Let me know by leaving a comment!

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  • Hi Elisa — great post! One follow-up to your fourth DO point about empowerment. If you’re going to delegate any workflow oversight responsibilities to your staffers, either a) grant them the authority for reward or punishment, or b) stand behind them 110%, take their feedback, and handle those personnel duties yourself.

    I’ve been in the situation where I was responsible for people’s work but not the people themselves twice. The first time I had a manager who treated me like eyes and ears on the ground and relied on my reporting to make decisions. The second time I had a manager who had no interest in reporting and rarely followed up on my recommendations. Guess which one was a stronger leader … and had a stronger team?

  • Excellent point Julia! If you (as a supervisor) trust someone enough to give them oversight over a project, you should also trust them enough to give them that reward/punishment authority or to stand behind their recommendations completely.

    I think its especially important in small nonprofits where the structure is much more lateral than hierarchical e.g., its really important that someone given ‘coordinating’ responsibilities for a project have the wherewithal to implement that coordination role.


  • Adrianne Russell

    Excellent post! There’s nothing more frustrating than having all the responsibility and none of the authority.

    • Thanks Adrianne. I couldn’t agree more!