I stumbled upon a precious lesson in a gritty industrial town in Northern New Jersey.
It happened many years ago, in a plastic bag factory, to be precise. I was visiting the owner, a donor to the organization for which I was executive director at the time. After handing me a check for our humanitarian work, he asked my colleague and I if we would like a tour of the factory. Anyone who’s worked even a single day in major gifts knows the answer to the question. But beyond the perfunctory humoring of a donor, I was genuinely curious. This world of factories and smokestacks was something I had gazed at from the highway, but never wandered into before. I’ve probably encountered plastic bags just about every day of my life, but I had never given a second thought to where they come from.
Our host showed us around the machinery, introduced us to the various foremen and workers and nonchalantly gestured at the final product being produced that day and prepared for shipment to customers across the country. The factory floor was a single gigantic room with a high ceiling and a cacophony of high and low pitched noises all blending together in an efficient whir of endless productivity. High above our heads, smack dab in the middle of the room hung a sign that grabbed my attention and has stuck with me to this day. It read simply: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.”
Attributed variously to Thomas Paine, General George Patton, Lee Iococca and numerous others, the quote had been a favorite of our host’s father, who founded the company and had hung the sign there many years ago. What he understood is there is an ever present tendency in human beings to lose sight of what we are trying to accomplish. We forget the goal, overthink things and get lazy. That sign was an unambiguous reminder to everyone working at the company to stay focused on the task at hand and contribute decisively to the whole team’s success.
As our nonprofit careers take us into ascending roles of leadership, organizational life frequently becomes a world full of meetings, planning, trouble shooting and reacting. If losing sight of the goal can happen on the floor of a noisy factory, with the final product right there for all to see, just think how easily it can happen in your situation. Living one or more steps removed from the front line work of our nonprofit organizations, or those we support, can make us — to put it bluntly — numb and dumb. The purpose of our work can fall into a hazy background, upstaged by day-to-day urgencies. Don’t let that happen.
Whatever your nonprofit does, get out into the field as often as you can. Talk to the people doing the front line work. Pitch in and help where practical, even if only for an hour here and there. You’re a better planner and a better manager when you have recent first hand experience with the work. You’re a better fundraiser when your heart remembers the impact of the work. Regular visits to your organization’s “factory floor” are unrivaled in their ability to deepen your connection and strengthen your leadership.