• Published June 7, 2020
  • 4 Minute Read

Confronting Wicked Problems: Reimagined Leadership Strategies for Societal Impact

Reimagined Leadership Strategies for the Social Sector and Societal Impact

As funders, organizations, and communities seek to confront and solve persistent societal problems and foster systemic improvements in population health, poverty, educational disparities, and other areas, previous approaches to social sector leadership are no longer enough.

At its core, social sector leadership is about bringing out the full potential of people and starting to address systemic, complex societal issues — so called “wicked problems” — by uncovering the roots of the issues. At CCL, we’ve had the privilege to work alongside many social sector leaders and partners as they invest in improving the health of entire populations, transforming education to serve all, and alleviating persistent, intergenerational poverty. These experiences have led us to an increased understanding of the aspects of social sector leadership that propel these efforts to greater success.

We believe that transformational change and networked, collaborative approaches to confronting wicked problems require reframing and expanding upon the traditional leadership competencies. Interpersonal communication skills, a tolerance for ambiguity, and strategic thinking are critical, as are embracing broader capabilities and frameworks.

This paper explores our recommended leadership strategies for societal impact and a collaborative approach to reimagining what leadership looks like and how it works in the social sector. For example, who leaders are, the kinds of problems they take on, how they connect, and how they sustain themselves can be foundational and powerful in terms of leadership effectiveness and societal impact.

Challenges That Social Sector Leaders Face

Given their size and complexity, systemic societal problems cannot be solved by individuals alone, however heroic. Collective, interdependent approaches are required for lasting success.

Yet many social sector leaders try to go it alone. Burnout among nonprofit workers is all too common, and maintaining resilience is a challenge. Interestingly, through one of our grant-funded partnerships to develop nonprofit leaders, we found that “work-life balance” was rated as the least important leadership competency among participants and their bosses. In another one of our partnerships, 61% of nurses reported they would like more company support for wellness, and in a third, just 40% of nonprofit executives told us they felt they could accomplish their work without sacrificing their lives outside of work. The resource-scarce context challenges social sector leaders’ sense of balance.

It’s clear that though social sector workers understand the connection between self-care and performance, there’s a gap between what individual leaders know is important to sustain the work and the support provided by their organizations. To tackle complex, systemic societal issues sustainably, institutions must provide tangible support to their workers and intentionally build a culture of resilience. They must also help to foster larger, more diverse networks of individuals and organizations committed to working together collectively and collaboratively.

An additional challenge facing social sector leaders and one of the reasons they consider leaving the field is that many nonprofit organizations face a lack of resources and few opportunities for career growth and development. For those working to foster systemic change in public and population health, or addressing poverty, educational disparities, and other enduring problems, reimagining what leadership looks like and how it works is foundational.

infographic on 5 leadership strategies social sector for nonprofits to spark transformational change

5 Crucial Leadership Strategies for the Social Sector

In this paper, we suggest 5 reimagined leadership strategies for societal impact for nonprofits and the social sector, specifically:

  • Moving beyond the traditional individualistic model of leadership, and embracing the idea that leadership is a collective process;
  • Cultivating and leveraging diverse, intentional, inclusive networks that draw from communities and groups that have historically been excluded from systems of power and influence;
  • Equipping nonprofit leaders to maintain perspective and stay focused in fast-moving, constantly-changing, dynamic environments and contexts;
  • Encouraging social sector leaders to learn while they also do — marrying leadership development and learning together with leadership actions; and
  • Making initiatives sustainable by providing institutional support and fostering a culture of resiliency for individual social sector leaders.

Each of these strategies has power on its own, but together, they have the potential to power a quantum leap in leadership effectiveness for nonprofit organizations. These reimagined leadership strategies for societal impact are what we need to address society’s most vexing, complex, and persistent problems.

Interested in learning more about how reimagining social sector leadership can help to achieve greater societal impact? Download the full white paper for an in-depth analysis of our 5 reimagined leadership strategies, and gain insights from our groundbreaking research and partnership case studies.

Download White Paper

Download White Paper

Download the full white paper to learn more about our recommended leadership strategies for societal impact.

  • Published June 7, 2020
  • 4 Minute Read

Based on Research by

Lynn Fick-Cooper
Lynn Fick-Cooper
Chief Equity & Societal Impact Officer

Lynn leads diverse teams responsible for the design and delivery of leadership solutions for social sector organizations focused on K–12 and Higher Education, Nonprofits, and Population Health; social sector research and evaluation; fundraising; and program operations. She’s also Executive Sponsor of our Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Practice, working to develop and deliver effective leadership solutions that help CCL and our clients create equitable, diverse, and inclusive organizational cultures.

Tracy Patterson
Tracy Patterson
Former Portfolio Director & Faculty

Tracy has extensive experience in leading programs and initiatives in the government, nonprofit, and health sectors. During her time at CCL, Tracy directed and expanded our global evaluation function and served as a facilitator for leadership development, program design, and capacity-building programs with nonprofit organizations.

Andi Williams
Andi Williams
Portfolio Director & Faculty, Population Health Sector

Andi Williams is our Portfolio Director & Faculty, Population Health Sector. She designs and delivers transformational development experiences, with a particular focus on developing public health leaders. She has also authored a book chapter, “Culture of Health Leaders: Building a Diverse Network to Advance Health Equity” in Leading Community Based Changes in the Culture of Health in the U.S.

Valerie Ehrlich
Valerie Ehrlich
Former Director, Insights & Impact

Valerie managed our Insights & Impact group, overseeing evaluation and applied research projects in the nonprofit, K-12, higher education, and population health sectors. With a research background is in social identity and human learning and development, she’s committed to data utilization and visualization and effectively leveraging research in service of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI).

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Intentional, Inclusive & Interdependent: Creating Effective Leadership in the Social Sector

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About CCL

The Center for Creative Leadership (CCL)® is a top-ranked, global, nonprofit provider of leadership development and a pioneer in the field of global leadership research. We know from experience how transformative remarkable leaders really can be.

Over the past 50 years, we’ve worked with organizations of all sizes from around the world, including more than 2/3 of the Fortune 1000. Our hands-on development solutions are evidence-based and steeped in our work with hundreds of thousands of leaders at all levels.