I Called Myself the “So-Called” Executive Director

In 1980 I co-founded the Management Assistance Group (MAG), the first ever nonprofit management consulting group to focus exclusively on helping social justice organizations to develop strong leadership, effective management, sound structures, and useful strategic plans. (To learn more about MAG, go to www.managementassistance.org.)

For the first ten years of its existence, I co-directed MAG along with Karl Mathiasen, MAG’s co-founder.  I was very comfortable with this arrangement.  I liked the safety  of sharing responsibility for MAG and I liked the security of having a co-director to make decisions with.  While I occasionally felt stymied by the inability to act until we both agreed, I nevertheless was unwilling to take any steps without Karl’s assent.

Karl and I kept saying that we needed to add additional management consultants to our staff  to meet the booming demand for MAG’s services.  But somehow we could never make it happen.  Our board became so frustrated with MAG’s failure to grow that it hired a management consultant to find out why the organization was stuck.

The consultant concluded that MAG was suffering from a “leadership vacuum” and recommended that one person take the reins of the organization and drive its expansion.  The board decided that person should be me.

So I was named MAG’s sole executive director.  Only I kept operating as I always had.  I continued to consult with Karl on everything.  I acted as though I had no more power or authority  than he had.   I called myself MAG’s “so-called executive director” and pretended that there had been no real change in my status.

I claimed to be doing this because of my relationship with Karl and my reluctance to do anything to upset it.  I never considered that I might be doing this because of my relationship to leadership and power.

Then, in early 1990, in the midst of a Landmark Education self-growth course, I had a startling and transforming insight.  I saw that I had relegated myself to being MAG’s “so-called executive director” because I was afraid of taking on the responsibility that being its real executive director would entail.  I was scared of making decisions on my own – of climbing out on the skinny branches with no one to hold my hand.  I dreaded being solely accountable for MAG’s development and success.

And I was terrified of owning up to how powerful I could be.  For if I acknowledged how powerful I was, if I admitted that every fiber of me said I was meant to lead, I would never again be able to blithely play small or hide out.  I would always know that I was wimping out and failing to be the powerful leader I knew I could be.

I saw that I had a choice. I could either continue to be stopped by my fears, or I could put those fears in my pocket – because they were never going to go away – anoint myself MAG’s executive director, and fully embrace the power that came with that role.

I chose to lead.  The result: by the end of 1990, MAG’s consulting staff had tripled in size and  the organization had risen to a whole new level of impact in improving the health of social justice organizations.

About the Author

Susan Weiss Gross has spent over 40 years strengthening social justice groups so that their people and programs succeed. Her special love is coaching women to realize their full leadership potential. Among the groups she’s assisted are the American Civil Liberties Union, the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Partnership for Women and Families, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Innocence Project, and Human Rights Watch. Susan has written numerous publications on leading and managing organizations, including Seven Turning Points: Leading through Pivotal Transitions in Organizational Life. (For more information on Susan and her book, go to LinkedIn, Management Assistance, and Amazon.)