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How to Be a Good Leader: Nonprofit CEOs & Funders Share Their Perspective

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Nonprofit Leadership Center

Successful organizations start with strong leaders, but what defines a good leader? What traits do good leaders possess? We recently interviewed more than 20 nonprofit CEOs and funders to understand what they believe makes a leader most impactful. They shared seven qualities that are necessary to be a good leader in today’s ever-changing workplace.

7 Qualities Required to Be a Good Nonprofit Leader

1. Visionary, strategic thinker

When asked about the essential qualities that good leaders possess, nonprofit CEOs and funders most frequently cited the ability to create a clear and compelling vision and rally staff and volunteers around a common purpose as the most important. The Economic Times has reported that visionary leadership encourages innovation, fosters growth and helps navigate adversity in uncertain times.

Nonprofit CEOs and funders further described visionary, strategic leaders as:

  • “Someone people want to follow.”

  • “Someone with influence and inspiration — Someone who inspires their teams and the community.”

  • “Someone who looks beyond serving people and is thinking about systems and their impact on their mission/issue.”

  • “Someone who thinks independently and goes outside the box when needed.”

2. Self-aware

Renowned organizational psychologist Tasha Eurich, Ph.D., has conducted extensive research in the area of self-awareness in the workplace. She defines self-awareness in two ways:

  • Internal self-awareness represents how we see our values, passions, aspirations, and reactions (including thoughts, feelings, behaviors, strengths, and weaknesses) and their impact on others. Internal self-awareness is associated with higher job and relationship satisfaction, personal and social control, and happiness.

  • External self-awareness means understanding how others view us based on the above-mentioned factors. Dr. Eurich’s research shows that people who know how others see them are more skilled at showing empathy and taking others’ perspectives and tend to have better relationships with their employees.

Given the research on the importance of self-awareness and its many benefits in the workplace, it’s no surprise that the nonprofit CEOs and funders we interviewed cited self-awareness as one of the most essential qualities of a good leader:

  • “Someone who knows themselves — their strengths as a leader and their deficits and ensures they have others on their team who are effective.”


  • “Someone who knows their strengths and areas of opportunity so they can build the team.”


  • “Reflective on themselves first and then those they support — self-aware and focused on their emotional intelligence daily.”

And yet, Dr. Eurich’s research shows that even though most people believe they are self-aware, only 10% to 15% actually are. If you want to be a good leader, the research is clear: start from within.

3. Competent/highly skilled in area of expertise

While many traits necessary to be a good leader focus on executive skills that are harder to measure, nonprofit CEOs and funders believe that being a skilled and impactful leader requires being competent and highly skilled in your area of expertise. Specifically, they cite the following when it comes to what it means to be a good leader:

  • “Has keen insight into their particular mission.”

  • “Has technical and adaptive skills that contribute to being impactful.”

  • “Someone who has the skills to do their job.”

  • “On top of the latest trends.”

  • “Able to anticipate unintended consequences.”

  • “Knowledgeable about the business and how to run it.”

4. Focused on and achieves results

Good leaders don’t just focus on results — they achieve them. The nonprofit CEOs and funders we interviewed said that good leaders are “focused on advancing the mission they represent” and “move the needle to lead others, accomplish goals and hit targets.” Ultimately, they say being impactful is fulfilling your charge to the community — however your organization defines it.

5. People-centered

While driving results is an important trait of good leaders, interviewees noted that good leaders do so while consistently putting people first. They defined an impactful leader as someone who puts others first and focuses on elevating and empowering staff. People-centered leaders make others feel valued and create a culture of engagement.

6. Committed to continuous learning and innovation

With today’s rapid pace of change, insatiable curiosity and a commitment to continuous learning are imperative to be a good leader. Interviewees said that good leaders are continuously learning and always looking for the next level of development.

And it pays off in other ways, too. Research from SHRM, the Society for Human Resource Management, shows that more than three-quarters of employees (76%) say they are more likely to stay with a company that offers continuous training.

READ NEXT: How to Create a Culture of Learning at Your Nonprofit

7. Exhibits strong character and judgment

Lastly, a good leader exhibits strong character and decision-making skills. The nonprofit CEOs and funders we interviewed cited the following attributes that good leaders possess.

  • “Humble.”

  • “Honest and transparent.”

  • “Good judgment.”

  • “Courageous — can make tough decisions when they need to be made.”

Strengthen Your Leadership Skills

How can you be a good leader? Strengthen your leadership skills at one of our upcoming nonprofit training classes or certificate programs.

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