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What can special education teach us about nonprofit leadership?

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A lot, I would argue. A special education teacher’s job is to assess the individual learning styles and needs of each of her students, and create learning systems in which each person can thrive. IEPs, for example, outline a specific set of action items based on a thorough assessment of a student’s goals and abilities. Or they should, anyway; some programs are better than others. In the business world, IEPs are called “Performance Plans,” except they’re not as individualized and they’re not always mutually beneficial. They’re usually just a series of goals that will improve the company along with a financial reward if and when the goals are met (or sometimes, repercussions if they aren’t). That’s great if your business:

a. Has a lot of money to give, and
b. Works with employees who value the financial reward above other benefits

But because most nonprofit leaders won’t be working in a world where both a and b are true, they need to get a little more creative with their employees. And by “creative,” I mean “totally intuitive if you just focus on getting to know your employee and what s/he wants and needs.” That’s what IEPs are so good for. When I worked for Americorps, we didn’t really get paid a very livable wage, but one thing we did get was the privilege of devoting a certain amount of time every week to personal and professional development. This meant we could work on projects, take classes, volunteer at other organizations, meet with other people in our field, and just generally feel like our lives as well-rounded, multi-faceted people were being respected. For me, this made all the difference; incidentally, it’s also how I came up with the idea for the Great Exchange and started working on it.

If and when I’m lucky enough to hire employees, I’m never going to presume that their entire lives exist at the Great Exchange. It’ll be a lot more fun for all of us if we see each other as people. I really believe that people who work at nonprofits are motivated by being seen. Well, all people who work anywhere are probably motivated by that. I think it’s undervalued by a lot of leaders, though, and that the basic concept of empathy becomes replaced by band-aid solutions and abstract explanations of where the organization is going.

So, you want to be a good leader with happy employees? Here’s what I propose:

Sit in on a special education class. Notice how many unique learning styles there are and how many people react in different ways to different stimuli. Notice how the teacher treats each student as an individual. Notice how the language gets tailored to each kid, notice the use of visual cues and the amount of space each student is given. And then scale back and realize that, in a much more subtle way, your employees are just like this.

One of the reasons I think non-disabled people can learn so much from disabled people is because people who have intellectual or social disabilities are a more extreme, and very illustrative, example of how we all have brains that work differently. And if you look at any great leader, you’ll probably notice that they understand this concept very well. I’m not completely there yet, but I hope to get there when I’m ready to lead.

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2 responses »

  1. Yeah, there’s sort of an underlying assumption sometimes that “the greater good” will suffice as motivation, whether that’s helping a hundred more students or making a for-profit company more money. But you can always help more people, and you can always make more money, so that goal ultimately becomes a bit ethereal and less-than-satisfying; particularly if that expectation replaces the basic knowledge that employees have hopes and dreams of their own.

    For better or worse, we grew up in a highly individualized culture and people aren’t satisfied with being cogs in a machine. You can criticize the culture of individualism all you want, but it’s not going away, so it’s best to just work with the knowledge that we all grew up that way and now we have deeply ingrained expectations of how it’s supposed to work within our lives. I’m not advocating unnecessary hand-holding, just basic respect for a person’s time and talent and hopes and desires.

    Reply
  2. Love this. Your observations about what (good) special education teachers are spot on and I like how you apply them to employees. It seems like a lot of non-profits, or the education ones I follow, burn through employees because there is more emphasis on putting in insane hours than on employee mental health. It is done in the name of the students the non-profit is serving, but I think ultimately it would serve them more if people stuck around because the lifestyle was sustainable.

    Reply

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