By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

I’m often dismayed by how little organizations learn from one another. Often, leaders actually choose ignorance with more than a little dose of self-righteousness.

  • People in nonprofit organizations insist they can’t learn from for-profit organizations because they are so cutthroat in nature.
  • People in for-profit organizations insist they can’t learn from nonprofits, whose ranks are filled with do-gooders and whose missions and processes are “too soft.”

For the most part, such people on both sides of the fence are wrong.

Lots in common

Often for-profit and not-for-profit organizations have lots of things in common – things based on size and rates of growth (measured in any number of ways), goals, age, cultural setting and any number of other factors.

A sign of a good leader is one who tries to learn from other organizations, especially very different ones.

Yet each unique

Of course, it doesn’t make any sense for any leader to simply and uncritically adopt the vision, principles or behaviors of any other organization – not even one in the same sector. It doesn’t matter whether the other organization is for-profit or nonprofit.  Each organization is unique.

Even with organizations as seemingly similar as parishes, no two are alike – not even if they’re in the same city, not even if they share a common border or a common pastor.

Yet, that’s no reason not to study other organizations – both similar and dissimilar – to see if they have anything that might be useful to adopt with suitable, case sensitive revisions.

Good leaders are discerning.

Adapt, seek feedback

Effective leaders don’t reinvent the wheel. Instead, they discern what parts they can use from other wheel assemblies and put them together carefully and creatively so that they end up with the perfect – or nearly perfect – wheel for their particular situation.

Then they keep examining their situation and their wheel to make sure fit and performance are optimum as the terrain changes and the wheel ages. That’s the value of feedback.

Good leaders seek a lot of it on a near constant basis.

Watching for patterns

There’s a fourth factor to take into account when leaders try to learn from other organizations. They have to look for patterns. These can show up anywhere, and they often cross the line from for-profit to nonprofit. Yet, sometimes they show up a lot more often on one side of the fence than the other.

For example, some patterns are more common with faith-based nonprofits than with other kinds of nonprofits or for-profit enterprises. One of these patterns that the leaders of faith-based organizations have to take into account has to do with organizational vision and what sustains it.

As Al Lopus, cofounder and president at Best Christian Workplaces Institute, notes: “In my experience, Christian organizations can be very leader-centric, meaning people look to the leader for vision and direction.”

That’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing when leadership is first-rate. It’s a curse when it’s not.

The problem is that staff people generally sign on with a big goal in mind: to serve God. With that big goal comes high expectations. When leaders don’t live up to staff expectations, the staff becomes disillusioned and trust breaks down, crippling the organization’s performance.