I’ve been writing a lot of late about the non-profit I ran of 11 years that closed. It had a worthy mission to economically empower immigrant and refugee women through entrepreneurship and English training in the San Francisco Bay Area. After 10 years running it, I took a sabbatical for rest and much needed time off. Upon returning, I came back to a skeleton of an organization that was running a $50,000 deficit, all occurring while I was gone.
There were many narratives as to exactly why we ended up in this position. The interim leader’s narrative ranged from ‘I was left to manage a house of cards’ to ‘the staff was not matched in the right positions for their skillsets’ to ‘our board chair wasn’t strong enough.’ Some of the Board Members’ narratives were ‘you can’t leave for 4 months and expect everything to be hunky dorey’ to ‘you left a COO in charge, not a CEO’ to ‘you didn’t share with us how much this was being run like a start-up.’ Some staff outright blamed the interim leader, some the Board. The most corporate members of the Board blamed me, because to their mindset, the buck stops with the CEO. Forget about any non-profit, “kumbaya” notion of shared leadership. It was a terrible time trying to stay afloat amidst a whirling sea of vastly different narratives. As well, there was the backdrop of the recession we were in at the time, which was more fact than narrative.
After having ample time to reflect, heal, do my own internal work, what became apparent to me was that I never really formed my own narrative in the process. I listened to everyone else’s. At one time, I had been the outreach person for this organization, the programs person, the grant writer, the major gifts fundraiser, the website developer, the bookkeeper, the computer tech person, the visionary leader. I grew an idea I started from my bedroom desk when I was 24 years old with $1,000 into an incorporated non-profit organization with an official Board. I was the one person with 360 degree experience of the entire enterprise. And much like a deer in headlights, I was so caught off guard coming back to this I could not even form my own narrative.
While having my own narrative was important to me in making sense of this all, I also learned that when things go South like this, it never is about any one person’s narrative. Ask anyone and they would all have a different perspective as to the “why” of this situation based on their own life experience or values. To them, their version IS the truth. As a leader looking back on this, I can say the learning is that we have to take responsibility and accountability for each of our roles in leadership. The learning is that nobody is perfect. The learning is in believing everyone did the best they could in the given circumstances, recession and all. Sometimes that is all we can do. We should own up to our shortfalls versus passing the blame and trying to justify why something wasn’t our fault, or our responsibility. We should understand we were all accountable in some way, and that for great ideas or organizations to thrive, the leadership must be shared.
Going forward, I choose a no frills narrative of “what’s so. “ What’s so is I founded and ran a great non-profit, co-built together with wonderful colleagues, Board members, advisors, funders, volunteers and staff. What’s so is I went away for a much deserved break on a Board approved sabbatical. What’s so is the organizational leadership was not able to raise sufficient funds or effectively orchestrate the team to achieve their goals. What’s so is upon my return, we attempted to merge the organization with a larger non-profit. What’s so is we were unable to do so for various reasons, including the recession. What’s so is we closed. What’s so is I learned the lessons of a lifetime. That’s what’s so.
Farhana Huq is an Executive & Leadership Coach, Surfer, Global Explorer and Founder of Surf Life Executive Coaching & Brown Girl Surf.
Executive & Leadership Coach | Global Explorer | Founder, Surf Life Executive Coaching & Brown Girl Surf