Sandpiper staring longingly at the ocean in Naples, FLWhat allows some leaders to move mountains by the strength of their resolve? To maintain hope in the face of adversity, failure, or deceit? To inspire others by the remarkable nature of their optimism and drive? Or what about those who attract genuine and powerful collaborators to their cause?

Becoming an exceptional nonprofit leader requires a unique set of skills and attributes. In The Nonprofit Dilemma, book and blog, we explore many of these traits and how to develop them to differentiate yourself from other leaders.

Of all the leadership traits, one stands out as the most crucial—resilience.

Regardless of your nonprofit’s focus, your resilience is the foundation of your leadership ability. Resilience is the ability to adapt and recover quickly from difficult situations and continue to move forward despite challenges. Your resilience inspires confidence among your colleagues, supporters, and partners. That confidence is central to maintaining focus, motivation, and ultimately success. If you are early in your career and aspire to be a successful nonprofit leader, the most important advice I can offer is to assess your own resilience and continually work to strengthen it. This means developing a growth mindset, embracing challenges, nurturing your support system, and seeing failure as a learning opportunity. By doing so, you are better equipped to handle the demands of nonprofit leadership and will attract the enduring support of those around you.

Let’s explore why resilience is so important with a short story:

Imagine a once great city that any casual observer can see is now broken. The city suffers from crumbling infrastructure, heartbreaking poverty and homelessness, pervasive corruption, and crime. Each month, representatives of the city’s remaining employers, government, hospitals, and nonprofits meet to discuss ways to remedy the situation.

For decades, these organizations have been starved of resources. The declining tax base and corruption emptied the government’s coffers. The changing economy and crumbling infrastructure have driven the employers out of the city and those that remain to near bankruptcy. The need for more adequately insured patients has left the hospitals struggling to keep their doors open. The unrelenting challenges and absence of wealthy donors have left the nonprofits desperate for grants.

As the situation grows more dire, each organization begins to see the city’s problems as overwhelming and hopeless. The organizations struggle to attract new leaders with the drive and vision needed to persevere. The representatives themselves grow intransigent and bitter as their own careers are stifled. They fight over the scraps of opportunity like wolves.

The monthly meetings are facilitated by an employee of one of the local nonprofits. She grew up in the city and was recently tasked with helping the group define goals and pursue funding. She was excited by the opportunity. However, over time, it became clear to her that each representative no longer held any trust for the others in the room. She begins to think they are only meeting to keep tabs on each other and to look for ways to exploit one another.

One day, the facilitator brings a major grant opportunity to the group. The grant offers a unique opportunity to improve the lives of the city’s residents significantly. She describes it as planting a seed of hope for the city and says their chances of success are much greater if they authentically work together. With a glint of greed in their eyes, each wolf smiles and commits to working together.

Sadly, the facilitator knows that while the wolves may agree to hunt as a pack, any spoils are sure to be fought over and squandered. She knows that while the seeds of hope may sprout, soon they will wither and die before the fruits of collaboration can be enjoyed by the broken city’s remaining residents.

The cycle of deceit, failure, and despair had become all too common in the city. It was their nature.

Undaunted, the facilitator continues to champion collaboration. She summons the courage to call out the hypocrisy of the wolves in a gentle but honest way. She paints a vision of the future where, together, they are successful. And she continues her search for a catalyst of change—A way to remind the wolves of who they once were. A way to help them see beyond the narrowness of their individual missions. A path to revive the once great city. She knows she can’t do it alone. But she remained steadfast in her hope. It was her nature.

Over time, she grew to view her role as less about helping the group define goals and pursue funding and more about helping the group reframe their relationship with one another by building trust, accountability, and a shared vision of a better future.

What is it about the facilitator that we find so inspiring?

Her courage? Her hope? Her recognition that collaboration is necessary to overcome the challenges facing the group? At the foundation of these traits lies the facilitator’s resilience. Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from setbacks. While on its face, that sounds simple, resilience has broad implications for our outlook and effectiveness as leaders.

Our courage, hope, and ability to overcome adversity are directly tied to what we’ve experienced and learned from those experiences. Even our openness to collaboration is partly based on our resilience and determination to achieve results.

It’s quite common for great nonprofit leaders to have experienced hardship and struggle in their past. These challenges shape their character and approach to leadership. We tend to focus on how those early challenges strengthened their resolve, which helps explain their passion and drive to make a difference. However, another factor sets them apart as exceptional and influential leaders. That crucial ingredient is resilience. Despite facing setbacks and obstacles, they remain determined and focused on achieving their goals and inspire others with their unwavering strength and perseverance.

Resilience gives them confidence when others feel despair, inspires the teams around them, and helps them see more clearly through the fog of hardship.

Becoming an exceptional nonprofit leader requires the courage to tackle challenges that others have deemed too hard and learning how to recover quickly from setbacks. You should expect many failures along the path to success and allow each of those failures to embolden your drive.

Your resilience allows you to constructively respond to failure and focus on what can be controlled. It helps you to see opportunity in adversity and setbacks, empowers you to be both pragmatic and hopeful about the future, and enables you to inspire the team around you.

Understanding what motivates your resilience and taking steps to strengthen it will serve you well in any nonprofit leadership role. For more on resilience (and many other topics), check out my book, The Nonprofit Dilemma.

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DC Armijo Founder
DC Armijo is an accomplished executive and award-winning author with over 25 years of nonprofit leadership experience.