20/100 Things We’ve Learned: It takes courage

What do the cowardly lion and nonprofits board members have in common?

The need for courage.

Don’t you just love the classic film the Wizard of Oz . It’s such a delightful and scary movie, a favorite of mine since I was a kid. Good old fashioned film making laden with lessons for the ages and for all ages. Lessons like:

  • No matter how far you travel, there’s no place like home.
  • Good friends are a treasure to cherish.
  • Nothing beats common sense.
  • Question authority.

And one in particular for nonprofit board members:

  • If you really care, you’ll find the courage to do the impossible.

The issue of courage has been surfacing a lot for me over the last few days. It’s come up in discussions with board members who shied away from raising a contentious issue.  It’s surfaced as I follow the Iranian demonstrators on Twitter and wonder just how close to personal danger I would stand to defend my ideals or my family.

I’ll bet that when you were asked to join a board, (or when you ask people to join yours), one area that never gets discussed is the need for board members to be courageous.

Most of you will never need the kind of courage for board service that puts you personally in harms way (though some of you may, and some of you already have).

So why talk about courage? Is that too big a word?

Leadership is never easy. Board members often face unpleasant tasks. You may need to terminate a failing CEO. Or stop re-electing routinely nonperforming board members or officers. Or cut a major program division that simply isn’t producing the desired results.

While these may be infrequent events, even the routine activities of serving on a nonprofit board require some courage. Or even a lot.


… asking the question that no one else is asking. And persisting until you get an answer you understand.

… suggesting it’s time to do thing differently from the way it’s always been done. Or dissenting — especially when you are the only one.

… reaching out to your friends, family, colleagues or even strangers to ask for their help, or to ask for their gifts in support of a cause you believe in.

… and critically and honestly reflecting on your own commitment and how that affects your performance.

You don’t have to be extraordinarily brave to be courageous. You just have to create the right conditions and culture that enable you to routinely be courageous.

The cowardly lion realized that his courage was the result of serving a powerful cause, standing shoulder to shoulder with a great team, recognizing that he did matter, and knowing that the repercussions were great if he failed to act.

Does this sound like the conditions you’ve created in your Board?

Like Dorothy and her crew, you don’t need a room full of magical creatures to accomplish great things,

… Just heart

… hard work

… the nerve.


A version of this article appears as the last chapter in Gayle’s book How are We Doing? A 1-Hour Guide to evaluating Your Performance as Nonprofit Board available through Contributions Magazine.

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