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.

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

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June 7, 2020
About the Author(s)
Lynn Fick-Cooper
Lynn is a VP and Managing Director for Societal Advancement at CCL, focused on developing the leadership capacity of K-12 schools, colleges and universities; nonprofits; and population health organizations. She holds a BA in Communication and an MBA in Marketing, both from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Tracy Patterson
Tracy is the Nonprofit Sector Portfolio Leader at CCL, collaborating with internal and external partners to develop and deliver innovative leadership development solutions to meet the unique needs of nonprofit organizations. She holds a BA in Government from the University of Notre Dame and a Master of Public Policy from Duke University.
Andi Williams
Andi is the Director of Population Health for CCL’s Societal Advancement Group, where she ensures high quality delivery of CCL’s health sector programs, as well as serving as a CCL coach and faculty member. She holds a BA in Economics with a focus on health economics and an MAEd in Counseling, both from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC.
Valerie Ehrlich
Valerie is a Societal Advancement Insights and Impact Group Manager at CCL, managing a group of researchers and evaluators focused on work in the social sector. She also contributes to CCL’s work in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion by supporting the EDI research agenda. She holds a BS in Psychology from Stetson University, an MA in Psychology from the City University of New York (CUNY), and a PhD in Psychology, also from the City University of New York (CUNY).

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