Tour des Trees 2020: Rollin’ in Place (Update #2)

I rode 75.1 miles today, the fourth jaunt in my “Rollin’ in Place” Anno Virum version of the Tour des Trees. That puts me at about 84% of my mileage goal, which I should finish early next week. I had originally planned to complete the 321 miles in six rides, but I’ve been going hard enough that I will get it done in five instead. Zoom zoom!

On the fundraising side, I’m at 69% of my goal. I’m truly grateful to those who have supported me and TREE Fund already. (See this post for more information on how these funds will be used). I’d be even more grateful if other readers would consider making a gift to the good cause. If you do it this weekend, I may be able to complete the money part of my commitment around the same time that I complete the physical challenge. That would be most satisfying. You can click the image above to get to my fundraising page. Easy peasy!

It was chilly out there today, in the high 30s when I rolled out, frost still visible in the fields. Hoping for a little balmier air next time I take Trusty Steed out . . . but if I need to be bundled up to get the job done, so be it. Worse things happen at sea.

Tour des Trees 2020: Rollin’ in Place (UPDATE!)

A couple of weeks back, I publicly stated my commitment to support my former employer, TREE Fund, by participating in their Anno Virum “Rollin’ In Place” version of the organization’s long-standing alpha community engagement and fundraising event, the Tour des Trees. I’ve ridden in five Tours, and they were truly wonderful, in many, many regards that I’ve written about at length here multiple times before. (Here’s last year’s report). While I will certainly miss the spirit of community that defines in-person Tours, I sincerely applaud TREE Fund for taking the safe and sane approach to the big event this year. I’m glad to do my part, where I can, however it can help them. So motivated, I defined my goal for this year’s activity as follows:

I’m sticking with cycling as my activity, with a 321 mile goal, ridden out on the road, like a normal Tour. While I can’t get the climbing experience in Iowa that I would have gotten in Colorado, I do want to replicate the daily endurance aspect of the Tour, so my objective is reach 321 miles in six rides (a typical Tour week), ideally including one century (100+ mile) ride. We are moving from Iowa on October 22, so I intend to complete the miles and the related fundraising before then.

I’m pleased to provide the following status report, updated after a solid (but cold, and windy) ride today of 70.2 miles:

That’s a screen cap from my fundraising page. You can get to it by clicking the image. Hint hint hint. For the record, I’m at ~61% of my cycling goal after three rides, averaging around 65 miles per excursion, all on real roads, in real-world conditions. Just like the Tour. I’m at ~51% of my fundraising goal, and would like to see those two metrics running in parallel. I’d be most grateful for your support, as would TREE Fund. Every gift counts, especially this year, when so many sources of funding are drying up or being redirected in the face of the pandemic and its related economic tumult.

Throughout the years that I served as TREE Fund’s President and CEO, I wrote boodles of words and articles explaining what we did and why it mattered and why donors should fund us. I think my favorite of those various fundraising pieces was one called “The Trees We Live With.” I reproduce its text below to help frame TREE Fund’s work, if you’re not already familiar with it. Their mission is important. I’m to glad to continue supporting them as I am able. I’d be deeply appreciative if you’d join me by making a contribution to my campaign on their behalf. Here’s the link again. Thanks for your consideration and support, as always. It means a lot, and it makes a difference.

THE TREES WE LIVE WITH

When friends and new acquaintances outside of the tree care industry hear that I am the “President of TREE Fund,” they almost always express enthusiasm for my work, although the conversation is often a little more complicated that you might expect, e.g.:

Friend: “Oh cool, I love trees! TREE Fund is the one that does tree planting events, right?”

Me: “No, that’s not us.”

Friend: “Oh, so you’re protecting the Amazon Rain Forest, right?”

Me: “No, not really, sorry.”

Friend: “Ummm . . . so you’re the organization that buys up land and puts it into trust so it stays forever wild, right?”

Me: “No, we don’t do that either.”

And so on, and so forth, sometimes for a few more rounds. In trying to cut to the chase politely on such conversations without diminishing people’s enthusiasm for my work with trees, the phrase I’ve found that seems to most quickly make their eyes light up with realization is when I say: “We fund research to benefit the trees we live with.”

People seem to embrace “the trees we live with” quickly and intuitively. These are the trees in our backyards, our street trees, the ones our children climb, the trees that shade our schools. They’re the formal arrangements that make our civic architecture more grand, the little glades that provide green backdrops to our developments, that killer oak along the fairway that costs us a stroke every time we slice a tee shot into it, the canopy above the cemeteries we visit on Veterans and Memorial Days, and so many others. The “trees we live with” are a part of our everyday lives and experiences. TREE Fund supports the science needed to sustain them.

I know, of course, that the benefits of our research and education programs reach well beyond that simple rubric. But getting people outside our industry to think actively about the myriad choices and decisions that can surround a single familiar tree over its lifetime is a great first step in helping them understand not only what TREE Fund does, but also the benefits that professional tree care services anchored in rigorous science can provide.

I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t appreciate “the trees we live with.” Bringing our work home for people that way can help us open the circle to new friends and supporters, one conversation at a time.

Tour des Trees 2020: Rollin’ in Place

I retired from my role as President and CEO of Tree Research and Education Endowment Fund (TREE Fund) in November 2019. That was right around the time that we announced that the next installment of our premier community engagement event, the Tour des Trees, would be rolling through Colorado in September 2020. Having ridden in and fundraised for five prior Tours (click here for last year’s report), I had fully intended to ride that planned 2020 mountain route as well, but those plans changed last Spring when I was awarded the opportunity to visit Ideas Island in Sweden, creating an irreconcilable scheduling conflict.

Then, of course, Anno Virum happened, and everything changed. I’m not posting from Sweden right now, and the Tour did not roll through the Rockies as expected. Bummers on both fronts. While losing the opportunity to work on a project at Ideas Island impacted only me, the loss of the 2020 Tour had far more consequential impacts on TREE Fund, significantly cutting into its ability to provide community engagement and fundraising to support crucial arboricultural research programs. The West Coast is burning as I write this post, demonstrating clearly and painfully how necessary and valuable scientifically-robust research findings and practices are to mitigating climate change, combating invasive species, and capitalizing on the myriad benefits provided by healthy urban and community forests. TREE Fund is a major player in that effort, especially as Federal funding for such work has evaporated or been redirected in recent years.

I was pleased, therefore, when TREE Fund announced plans for a “Rollin’ In Place” Tour designed to allow riders, runners, walkers, swimmers, hikers, whatevers support the organization safely from and in their own home communities. They’ve set a goal of $150,000, around the theme of “3-2-1 Go!,” explained thusly:

Traditionally, Tour des Trees riders would spend a week riding through a state or region, engaging with communities and raising funds for TREE Fund. Instead of riding 321 miles in the Rockies this year, we challenge you to take on 321 your own way! Ride 321 km a month the entire duration of the campaign, run 3.21 miles a day, do 321 pushups a week, walk your dog 321 miles, pogo-stick jump to a new record of 321 . . . you get the idea. 321 is the magic number!

I’m down to do my part on that front to help TREE Fund reach its event goals. I’m sticking with cycling as my activity, with a 321 mile goal, ridden out on the road, like a normal Tour. While I can’t get the climbing experience in Iowa that I would have gotten in Colorado, I do want to replicate the daily endurance aspect of the Tour, so my objective is reach 321 miles in six rides (a typical Tour week), ideally including one century (100+ mile) ride. We are moving from Iowa on October 22, so I intend to complete the miles and the related fundraising before then.

I’ve kicked things off by making my own contribution to the cause, and would greatly appreciate it if you would support TREE Fund via my “Rollin’ In Place” campaign. Here’s my fundraising page, where you can make your own gift to support the mission and goal. That page is linked to my cycling computer, so it will show progress updates as they occur, and I will also report them here, of course. Thanks in advance for whatever you can chip in to the effort. I am grateful, as will be the entire TREE Fund team.

Last year’s Tour team. We’re not together in person this year, but the communal spirit remains strong. (Click to enlarge and see if you can spot the very professional Ex-President/CEO throwing the metal horns. BRUTAL!!)

Nonprofit Management: Tips of the Trade

In 1996, I wrapped up 14 years of Federal service in a variety of military and civilian roles. I had already established a solid freelance writing business at the time, but I wanted a “day job” to provide healthcare coverage for my family and a stable salary base atop which my I could write what, when, and as I wanted. Most of my colleagues from Navy days facing similar transitions at the time went into the for-profit sector, but I decided that public service meant too much as a guiding principle for me to walk into a world where shareholder profits were at all a governing interest in my day-to-day work.

So I made a conscious decision to enter the nonprofit sector, where I’ve remained ever since. I had to essentially start my career over that year, since my acquired skills of negotiating complex, high-value, confidential contracts for submarine and aircraft carrier components didn’t exactly translate into the cultural, educational, and social service sectors. But I’m a quick learner, and it didn’t take long before I earned the first of four nonprofit chief executive positions that I have held to date.

As that phase of my professional life now winds down with my retirement from that fourth nonprofit CEO position this month, I wanted to share ten frank thoughts that I think might be useful to the next generation of up-and-coming nonprofit executives. I would have appreciated having someone tell me some or all of these things in 1996, so hopefully others may find them useful. (Note: in the few cases where I’ve already written more on some of these topics elsewhere, I link to those articles, rather than simply repeating them here).

1. Understand the differences between governance and management: Nonprofit boards are tasked with governance, nonprofit executives are tasked with management. I developed this grid to explain the key differences between those roles. When boards manage and executives govern, nonprofits fail. As the chief executive of a nonprofit organization, you sit as the single crossover point person looking upward to a multi-person board that supervises you, and downward at a multi-person staff that you supervise. No one is in a better position than you are to monitor roles in both directions, to set appropriate boundaries, and to formulate and implement corrective action when the governance vs management relationships get out of alignment.

2. Serve on nonprofit boards: You will never fully understand or appreciate the challenges that your boards face in fulfilling their governance and fiduciary roles unless you yourself sit on that side of the table at some point too. But don’t just serve on a board as checklist item on your resume, or for the cache of having your name on the letterhead of a prominent charity. Board service involves a lot of challenging volunteer work, and there are specific duties and responsibilities expected of all nonprofit board members. I developed this summary of those roles and responsibilities, and you should be prepared and committed to live, work and deliver within such a rubric before you join any nonprofit board.

3. Understand nonprofit accounting standards and auditing practices: On some plane, I’d almost say this is the most important of the ten tips provided here, as an adept skill with your budgets and financials will allow you to work most closely and effectively with your board’s treasurer and your own staff financial professionals. You want to have the best people possible in those roles, sure, but you don’t want to turn them into the de facto financial decision-makers for your organization because you don’t have a complete, timely and accurate understanding of the reports they produce, review and approve. Some years ago, I wrote a (hopefully) amusing introduction to this somewhat dry topic called Financial Basics for Nonprofit Managers. While I mostly developed these skills in a hands-on fashion over a lot of years, if you’re at that transition point between being a development or other nonprofit middle manager and serving as your organization’s executive, I would most emphatically recommend that you find a training or certificate course in nonprofit accounting. It will set you apart, and it will serve you well.

4. Develop a thick skin: I often use a sports analogy when I discuss the life of a nonprofit fundraiser, noting that a really good professional baseball player will hit at or above .300 over the course of a season, meaning that 70% of his at-bats result in failure. Well, guess what? A really good fund development or institutional advancement professional has about the same success rate in a given year, and if being told “no” hurts your feelings, then you’re in the wrong business. Some nonprofit executives think they can get around this by having their development directors and/or board members make all of the hard asks, but that’s a recipe for failure over the long haul. Peer-to-peer asks are crucial, and many times you are the right person to make such asks, and many times you will receive a negative reply after you make them. They key to enduring that is to recognize that most “no” answers are actually “not now” answers, and to practice your swings and hone your skills until the next at-bat comes around, with a smile on your face while you do it.

5. Understand and practice the donor development cycle: Related to the point above, if you step up to the plate having done none of the necessary training and practice, the likelihood of a big swing and a whiff increases exponentially. The donor development cycle involves prospect identification, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship, and it takes time, research, and talent. If you ask someone for a big gift the first time you meet them, you can pretty much plan on a “no” response. If you do not understand what motivates a prospect before you ask them for a gift, you’re even more likely to get a “no” from them. And some of those “no” answers will really mean that, for good, with no invitations to come back around again for another try. The one part of the donor development cycle that most often goes neglected by nonprofit executives is the stewardship phase, or what happens after you actually get the gift. If a major donor does not hear from you again until you want more money, he or she is less likely to feel the love and write the check. But if you carefully, judiciously, and personally steward those donors, your next gift is more likely to come in, and hopefully be bigger than the one before it. People want to feel connected to their charitable causes, and they want to know that their gifts make a difference. You are one of the most important players in making sure that’s the case.

6. Respect the sector and its people: There’s a sadly common trope in the business world that “people work in the nonprofit sector because they can’t cut it in the for-profit sector.” From a strictly monetary standpoint, this might seem to make sense, since salaries in the nonprofit sector are generally lower when compared to comparable positions in the for-profit sector, and if people can get paid more for doing the same job in the for-profit sector, then their continued presence in the nonprofit sector must be indicative of their second-tier talents, right? But this is very wrong, offering a shallow and reductive view of the nonprofit sector that fails to recognize fundamental elements of the charitable experience: altruism, belief in a mission, philanthropy, a desire to serve others, a sense of deeper meaning, wanting to make a difference, etc. Some of the most talented individuals that any of us are ever likely to encounter have forged their entire careers and reputations working for and with nonprofits, to the tremendous benefit of their communities. The nonprofit workforce isn’t less effective or less valuable than the for-profit sector is, it’s just driven by a very different set of motivations and inspirations. I believe those of us in leadership positions within the nonprofit sector have a clear responsibility to educate those outside the sector on this front, and we should never denigrate, by action or by inaction, our colleagues and their organizations in the eyes of those who would judge our staffs that way.

7. Understand and manage the power dynamics of our sector: This is a subtle one, somewhat related to stewardship, somewhat related to developing a thick skin, somewhat related to respecting the sector and its people, but it’s a common facet of the nonprofit world experience, so I think it needs to stand on its own. At bottom line, you need money for your organization, and your donors have the money you need, which means that your donors have a profound power to greatly enhance your success, or to deeply undermine it, as they see fit. Some of your biggest donors will be clearly aware of this fact, and they’re not going to be bashful about letting you know what they want and expect from you, when they want and expect it. Sometimes, those wants and expectations are going to cross lines of professionalism and propriety and you will have to stand firm on principles in such cases, and (hopefully) do so in a way that does not produce negative outcomes for your organization. But other times, sorry to say, you’re going to have to suck it up and go along with what they want, when they want it, on their terms. This can be a real prick to the pride when you’re feeling particularly powerful and accomplished as the CEO of your nonprofit corporation, and I’ll admit that accepting this reality has always been a challenge for me. I’m a seasoned professional and a major donor for some organizations in my own right, so being treated like “the help” can really sting sometimes, e.g. going to a gala event with a lot of heavy-hitting donors in your community, where their interactions with their peers, and then with you, make it very clear that in their minds, you are not one of them. But that’s, sadly, the macro nature of a world where there are those who give, and those who need their gifts. Many major donors are truly gracious and would never treat you this way. But a surprising number of them will, and you should know that going in.

8. Foster a strategic culture: Strategic planning is crucial to the success of any good nonprofit organization. It may be broadly viewed as an iterative, two-part undertaking. In the first part of the process, an organization defines a vision for the future that is consonant with its mission. In the second part of the process, the organization then allocates financial, capital and human resources toward achieving this vision. The two parts of the process must be linked with regular feedback mechanisms that allow both the vision and the allocation of resources to evolve, together, to meet emergent opportunities and challenges. Strategic planners must recognize a principle most eloquently elucidated by General Dwight D. Eisenhower during planning for the invasion of Normandy: “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” Planning is a dynamic, ongoing enterprise, not an occasional activity resulting in a static, printed plan that becomes obsolete soon after it is created because it is placed on a shelf to gather dust. Planning is a process, while plans are tools—and no tool should ever be held in greater reverence than the process it supports. As your organization’s executive, you sit smack in the middle of this crucial process: you must encourage and empower your board to think and act strategically, and you must manage your staff to implement the plan to fulfill the board’s vision, not your own personal preferences and projects. I wrote a bit more on this topic here.

9. Don’t start your own nonprofit as a hobby or on a whim: I will admit that this is a pet peeve of mine. I’ve seen more people than I care to consider over the years say “I see a very niche need not being met in my community, so the best thing for me to do is to establish a new nonprofit corporation to address that need.” And then they do it. And more often than not, it fails, but only after wasting a lot of donated money. Maybe some of those folks are correct in taking that first step to organize and establish, sometimes, but not very often, and a nonprofit organization shouldn’t be established as a hobby, especially if it needs to suck funds from a finite pool of community resources. You also should never establish a nonprofit corporation to give yourself a paying job as its executive. That’s just bad form. While changes in tax codes and economic uncertainty are resulting in shortages in individual funding for the nonprofit sector these days, there is no shortage of nonprofits themselves: the National Center for Charitable Statistics reports that there are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in existence in the United States today, of which about 1.2 million are 501(c)3 charities. (Don’t make the amateur mistake of saying “501(c)3” interchangeably with “nonprofit;” they are not, necessarily). The Balkanization of the nonprofit sector caused by a growing number of tiny niche mission nonprofits ultimately hurts the overall effectiveness of our sector. If you see a charitable need unfulfilled in your community, your best, first bet is to figure out which existing service provider may have a mission that could allow it to meet the need within its established operational and fundraising infrastructure, and commit to helping it do so. Setting up competing, small nonprofit corporations without the ability to actually pay for such provision will generally make it very difficult for any funds raised to have any significant, long-term impact. Again, this is not to discourage you from volunteering your time, talents and treasures in a visionary fashion, but you’re going to be a lot more useful to a lot more people if you don’t reinvent the wheel by starting a new nonprofit from scratch on a personal whim.

10. Keep charity charitable: There’s been a lot of (needed) discussion over the past couple of years about tax code changes making it financially beneficial for donors to use the increased standard deduction in lieu of itemizing deductions (including charitable giving), thereby reducing the strictly financial tax return benefit donors receive from their charitable giving. But I think we make a mistake in our communications when we put too much focus on tax benefits, because the charitable good that donors do is actually independent of any quid pro quo tax benefit they receive as a result of their philanthropy. Charity is, by its very definition, the voluntary giving of help, typically via money, to those in need — and nonprofit organizations need to demonstrate, at bottom line, that they remain worthy of support for the good work they do, and for the benefits that they deliver to their clients and communities. After all of my years in the nonprofit sector, I know that when push comes to shove, the sense of doing something righteous, and making a difference through one’s gifts, is the truly fundamental motivator for individual donors, one that resonates deeply in ways that simple monetary benefit from tax-deductions does not. As your organization’s leader and spokesperson, it’s your job to keep the sense of awe that comes from doing the right thing front and center in everything you say and do.

Bonus Tip #11: Learn how to calculate and build a donor campaign pyramid. It should not look like this one.

Credidero #10: Authority

Back in the mid-’90s, when I was writing for an alternative newsweekly, the features team was occasionally given a summer gang project called “How To.” Each of us were tasked with writing a piece explaining, somewhat obviously enough, how to do something at which we were (nominally) experienced and knowledgeable. Being a quirky and contrarian crew, most of us chose to explain how to do things that were of a marginal degree of usefulness to our readers, producing articles that were probably intended to be entertaining (to the authors, anyway, if not the readers) more than they were educational.

Over the course of a few years, I explained How To Write A Record Review, How To Get a Grant, How To Keep a Secret, How To Talk To a Sleeping Rock Star, and How To Be An Expert. The grant-writing one was nominally useful, objectively speaking, if you were a fundraising professional, and the record review one has long been used by a journalism professor in Texas as part of her syllabus, so I suppose that one was legitimately of some value, too. The Sleeping Rock Star one was me making lemonade out of lemons after I was given a “phoner” appointment to interview then-trending singer-songwriter Abra Moore (who was asleep when I called her), and the secrets one was a result of me leading a weird double life where I was a music critic by night and a contracting officer for a highly classified military program by day.

Of those five pieces, How To Be An Expert was the one that hewed most meaningfully to my own real experiences and beliefs, and I have returned to or referenced it regularly over the past 25+ years as a basic operating tenet in my professional life. It stems from some of the best professional advice I was ever given, very early in my post-college career, after a simple conversation with a supervisor/mentor that went like this:

“If you want to succeed here, or in any other job,” he said, “then you have to become an expert.”

I asked the obvious question: “An expert in what, sir?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just make yourself an expert in something, and when you’ve done that, you’ll be indispensable.”

 

I used the word “expert” in that article, because that’s what my boss said, but I just as easily could have used the word “authority,” because that’s the gist of what he was communicating to me: if people perceive you as an authority on any particular subject, then you are useful to them, and you’ll always have a place in the organization, so long as you maintain your position as the organization’s authority of record on that particular topic, or maybe on a variety of topics, if you’re really good at exploiting this concept.

When I first started contemplating this month’s Credidero article, this “be an expert” narrative sat the center of my reflections on “authority.” I’ve spent most of my professional career in positions where I’ve been held up as an (or even the) authority on an evolving and branching stream of topics, as my work has taken me through a somewhat dizzying array of professional disciplines. I am self-aware enough, though, to know that in each and every case where I’ve been accepted as an authority on a particular topic, it was very much an act of me claiming that role, more than it was an act of others bestowing it on me — because if you say something long enough, often enough, and confidently enough, then it becomes reality, or at least is perceived as reality, and there’s really no difference between those outcomes.

My skills at self-marketing have always played into this paradigm, on top of the cultural cues and biases that benefit me by virtue of who I am and what I look like: a tall, white, older male with a degree from a “big name” college, who’s a glib speaker and solid writer, and with the ability to quickly process, retain and regurgitate a dazzling stream of facts and opinions. As such, most people are culturally conditioned to accept whatever I write, say, or do, if I offer my words of expertise confidently and with, yes, authority. There have been many times in my career when I have not been the most-trained, or most-knowledgeable, or most-experienced person in a given room or sphere on a specific topic, but people have still turned to me as “the authority,” simply because I’ve carried and presented myself as such more effectively than those around me, using the cultural privileges that are bestowed upon people like me as part and parcel of our society.

Is that fair? No, not really. But I have used it to my advantage anyway, and (more importantly, I think) to the advantage of my employers and their causes. I do not believe that I have ever used perceptions of my own authority for negative or negligent purposes, or to advance a crooked or conflicted agenda, or to denigrate, demean or disempower others who might, in fact, have more expertise than I do. I’m good at sharing credit when it’s due and when I can. That ability to advance the causes of my organizations in an authoritative way that makes people feel like they are invested in and connected to those causes is high among the traits that I believe have most contributed to my professional success over the years.

While I may claim to be an authority or an expert earlier and more forcefully than others might under similar circumstances, I also believe that I have managed those positions in ways where most people are willing to accept and reflect that authority back at me, confident that I will use it wisely, even if it is still nascent. And I say “most people” most purposefully, because I know that there are certainly a subset of my work colleagues over the years who just thought that I was a really good bullshit artist. That’s okay, I guess. I probably was. And probably still am. It’s hard to tell the difference between being a doctor and playing the role of a doctor on television sometimes, as long as you’re not performing brain surgery. I know my limits.

The word “authority” has several subtle definitional aspects to it, and I’ve only been focusing thus far on one of them: “the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something.” This form involves being an authority (where I am the subject noun) on a given subject, which is somewhat different from having authority, where the subject noun is a standalone external right, and not me personally. That form of authority is defined as: “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” When it comes to that form, there’s no “be an expert” bullshit or cultural bias at play, because you either have it, or you do not, typically as a result of your position within an organization.

As the CEO of a variety of nonprofits over the years, I’ve had all sorts of authority when it comes to this second definition of the term. I have had the ability to negotiate and sign contracts, take out loans, pay bills, sign checks, hire people, fire people, award grants, buy things, sell things, and a myriad of other rights that are integral and essential to the positions I’ve held. In the nonprofit sector, the ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the corporation resides in the board of directors, who are also tasked with governance and with hiring and supervising their chief executive. After that, it falls on the chief executive to manage the organization within the mission and vision established by the board of directors and ideally embodied in a strategic plan. That means I’ve had a lot of latitude to do what I thought was the right thing to do for each of my organizations, and I had the authority to implement whatever ethical and legal tactics I deemed best to getting the job done effectively and efficiently.

My understanding and living of this form of authority is also highly influenced by some of my early professional training, in this case while still at the Naval Academy, where we learned the differences and distinctions between authority, responsibility, and accountability as part of the Leadership and Management Education and Training (LMET) curriculum. At the simplest level, authority is the ability to make a decision, responsibility is the  job we are tasked to do, and accountability is the way in which we answer for the work we’ve done. The balance between these three factors has an immense impact on how effectively one can function in the work environment.

For example, if an employee has a high level of responsibility, but little authority, then he or she will likely be heavily frustrated by having to seek continual approvals elsewhere while trying to achieve necessary tasks. If an employee has both high authority and high responsibility, but no accountability, then it becomes easy for him or her to just coast, knowing that there are no likely repercussions for not fulfilling expectations, and the organization will suffer as a result. On the flip side, if the accountability function is ratcheted up too high, then it becomes difficult for an employee to achieve his or her responsibilities, even with clear authority, because of the constant micro-managing attention to activities that should be free from continual oversight and evaluation. I’ve always used my LMET training in evaluating potential work situations, and then once engaged, I’ve done my best to create the proper balance between those three facets of management, for myself and for those entrusted to my supervision.

I’ve been fortunate in most of my professional roles to have identified or developed nonprofit boards that allowed me to build and maintain appropriate balance between professional authority, responsibility and accountability. But with my pending retirement from the salaried work world in a few weeks, this will change for me, as I will no longer possess authority (nor responsibility, nor accountability) as a function of the position that I hold within an organization, for the first time in well over 35 years. In most typical freelance or consulting roles, I’ll likely have defined responsibilities and accountability, sure, but not much positional authority. Which means that I will have to fall back more heavily on that first form of authority, which I can claim for myself as a function of what I know, what I can do, and how well I can communicate it. I’m okay with that, I think. I’ve proven over the years that I’m pretty good at positioning myself as an expert, and I’m also fairly adept at being accountable to myself when I need to be. (Pro tip: I’ve found that it’s helpful to publicly state intentions on this front, e.g. telling all of my readers here that I was going to write a 12-part series called “Credidero” last January made me more likely to actually do it this year. Ten down, two to go!)

A few other facets of meaning and belief emerged for me as I considered the concept of authority over the past month. The first came when I did my usual research into the etymology and history of the word to be studied for the month. “Authority” has its roots in the Latin auctor, meaning “originator” or “promoter,” and that root also produced the modern English word “author.” I like the concept that developing and claiming authority is an act undertaken by an author, in that we write our own narratives, and then (using another element of the ancient word), we must promote those narratives in order to bring them to meaningful fruition. I do this continually, in so many places and so many ways, here on this website and in my “real world” personal and professional lives. All we are is all we’ve been, so in theory, I should get ever better at this as I age, so long as I don’t ever lose the rampant curiosity that’s often the motive force and lubricant of my learning and communicating processes. We’ll see how that goes.

There was another interesting intermediate evolutionary meaning in the etymological history of this month’s Credidero word. In 13th/14th Century Old French, between the Latin auctor and the English authority, we find autorite, which was an “authoritative passage or statement, book or quotation that settles an argument, passage from Scripture; authoritative book; authoritative doctrine.” In this usage, authority wasn’t a particular person, nor a power held by said person, but rather an inhuman physical artifact that was deemed to embody decisive decision-making power. This reminds me of the most beautiful of the Gospels, which John the Evangelist opened by simply explaining that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” While we read this metaphorically, obviously, the idea that written and spoken words may carry the purest essence of the divine within them has always been highly appealing to me.

A self-professed and self-proclaimed right of authority has more heft if the very words that anchor it are right, and true, and inspired as outward manifestations of inner truths, or local observations of universal realities. In this sense, standing as a personal authority, even without positional authority, may be a path along which or a vehicle through which legitimate and pure societal good may be promulgated and promoted. Words have immense power to foster change, if you use them wisely. I like to think this is what I’ve done in my work over the past three-plus decades, and I am hopeful that I will be able to continue to do so in the years that remain ahead of me.

But the dark flip side of this paradigm is embodied by another modern English word that derives from the Latin auctor: Authoritarian. It’s tragic and troubling to consider how relevant this word has become again in modern political practice and parlance, as weak and insecure national leaders at home and abroad expect unquestioned obedience, and act tyrannically when they do not receive it. I read an interesting interpretation of the etymology of this word, which likened it less to “authority” and more to “author,” as authoritarian leaders seek to be the masters of the fictional worlds that they create. Unfortunately, almost all of them also have positional authority, which allows them to leverage vast monetary, legislative and military machines toward their own nefarious ends. That way evil lies. And madness.

This tendency toward authoritarianism becomes all the more dismaying and tragic when leaders are propped up by corporate propaganda machines and other weak and insecure legislators who use their own positional authority to propagate their leaders’ hateful messages and paper over their childish and/or criminal behaviors, lest they rock the status quo that’s elevated them, Peter Principle style, to positions well above their apparent capabilities and capacities. I think most folks my age in the United States grew up perceiving authoritarianism as a dead or dying political system. I doubt that many of us would have imagined that we’d be close to living in it as we eyeballed our retirement years, and that the centuries-old system of checks and balances designed to protect us from it would fail for nakedly partisan political reasons. Here’s hoping that enough of us wake up and exercise the authority constitutionally bestowed upon us as voters in 2020 to turn this tide, before it sweeps us away into the type of future that dystopian science fiction writers favor.

While there’s no question that authoritarianism is a bad thing, and must be resisted by sane citizens of any state, I find it interesting how often people look through that same lens when considering any form of authority. If you go search Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations or any other similar online quote banks for the word “authority,” the vast majority of the quotes that search returns will be focused on questioning, disobeying, challenging, or dismantling authority. Now, this may be a function of the fact that the types of writers and thinkers whose quotes end up in Bartlett’s are more apt to be anti-establishment types than the average citizen, or it may just be that these sorts of “Fight the Power” epigrams are more memorable and inspirational than the “He loved Big Brother” ones are, hence their appearances in such anthologies and encyclopedias.

But I have mixed feelings about blindly conflating authoritarianism with authority, as I loathe the former, but am more than willing to accept the latter, if it’s properly earned or bestowed. To some extent, that may be a function of the fact that I’ve counted on my own authority time and time again in my professional life as a key tool to achieve the things I want to achieve, and I don’t feel that every act and every decision I’ve taken with the authority vested in, or claimed by, me should be subject to scrutiny, question or rebuttal. I give other authorities the same benefit of the doubt that I expect from other people in considering my own actions and activities. I hope that as I move into a phase of my life where my authority stems from who I am and what I do, rather than from what position I hold, that I’ll be able to still leverage such authority to achieve my desired ends. Which, hopefully, will not be authoritarian in tone or tactics.

As I read back over what I’ve written this month, I note that there are more subtle semantic dances than usual, as I seek to shoehorn “authority” into the “what I will have believed” rubric behind this Credidero series of articles. But I think that was a necessary approach to wrestling with a concept that has so many significant variables operating within closely-aligned, but not exact, definitional distinctions. When I look at the authorities around me, I value those who bring earned or acquired expertise more than I value those who are granted authority by their positions, but I still value those positional authorities, so long as they don’t become authoritarian. I believe we need to be constantly vigilant as we evaluate the various authorities that govern and shape our lives, but when all is said and done, I also believe that there’s also a need for such authorities, and I hope that I am able to continue authoring my own life story in a fashion that encourages others to look my way and say “Now there’s an expert. Let’s see where he’s going to take us . . . ”

When an eagle explains stuff to you, you listen . . .

Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this tenth article complete, I roll the die again . . .

. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Three: “Mortality.” Since there’s only one topic left after that, I also know that December will be dedicated to Topic Number Two: “Possibility.” I guess those are two heady concepts with which to wrap the project! 

All Articles In This Series:

Credidero: A Writing Project

Credidero #1: Hostility

Credidero #2: Curiosity

Credidero #3: Security

Credidero #4: Absurdity

Credidero #5: Inhumanity

Credidero #6: Creativity

Credidero #7: Community

Credidero #8: Complexity

Credidero #9: Eternity

Credidero #10: Authority

Credidero #11: Mortality

Credidero #12: Possibility

Credidero: An Epilogue

 

Head Shot for Press/Media

Portrait by Coleman Camp, 2019, https://colemancampstudio.com/

Portrait by Coleman Camp, 2019, https://colemancampstudio.com/