Executive Director Leadership Skills

Guiding Ship Leadership

Most people think of executive director positions as being focused on management and business administration. There is, however, a marked difference between being an effective leader and being an effective manager. These skills are not mutually exclusive, and the difference can really shape the entire work environment and significantly impact the nonprofit.

While anyone can have great management skills focusing on planning and strategizing, executive director leadership skills focus on the personality and ability to align the team towards a common vision.

The Difference Between Managers and Leaders

Managers play an important part in keeping day-to-day operations functioning efficiently. They are focused on setting goals for the organization and team. Often managers are focused on the here and now of the organization, making sure that everything is going as planned. They run on pre-existing productivity structures and are skilled at executing strategic plans.

Leaders’ greatest asset is that they are future-focused. They challenge current processes and take the steps to further the organization. They are innovative and are willing to accept ideas from the team. Leaders are skilled at creating a vision and convincing their team that it is beneficial for all. Leaders also focus on relationship building with their team members, instead of focusing on productivity. They are willing to take risks and challenge the status quo.

The hallmark difference between leaders and managers in the executive director role is that leaders are willing to work on themselves and develop their mindset and point of view.

Top Executive Director Leadership Skills

Executive director leadership skills (well covered in Major Gifts Today) are wide-ranging and good leaders try to develop their abilities in all areas. Each individual leader will have a special trait that they are particularly good at, and the most desirable skills may differ between each organization.

Suppose a nonprofit has been spinning its wheels and unable to make any real progress. In that case, it may require an executive director that is especially innovative and willing to take a risk. If there has been a bad work atmosphere amongst team members for some time, an executive director skilled at aligning a team under one vision may be just the thing to pull them out of the rut.

Overall, there are some skills that can be used in just about any situation.

Self Development

Self-development is single-handedly the most important way to develop executive director leadership skills. True leaders remain teachable and understand that the organization will stagnate if they are stagnant in their learning.

Developing their own emotional awareness can help executive directors understand why their team may behave or react in a certain way. Understanding their own personal privilege in the workplace and their target population can help them remain informed and cultivate a welcoming, inclusive environment.

It is always beneficial for executive directors to develop public speaking, empathy, and social psychology skills. These skills are integral for the development of a strong leader.

Reading books on the subject, finding a mentor, or doing personal inner work to help them understand what moves them forward is of utmost importance.

Time Management

Even if you consider yourself a leader more so than an executive director, time management skills are the building blocks of success. Even the best leader can’t perfect executive director duties if they run behind or are double-booked for meetings. Being able to stay on top of your responsibilities and being accountable to your team when something goes awry will go a long way in developing trust and lasting relationships.

Scheduling time into your week for personal development or team-building efforts can truly solidify your executive director role. Taking the time to debrief with your team members, establishing “touchpoints” throughout the week to connect and check-in, and make yourself available for listening to staff issues are the building blocks to a solid team.

Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking paves the way for future success. Executive directors who are skilled at strategic thinking can think outside the box. They know that in order to have success in future projects or years, there needs to be discipline in play. They know that success does not appear out of thin air.

Executive directors who utilize strategic thinking will have a keen eye for data analysis, anticipate obstacles, and formulate a plan to stop them in their tracks. The creativity involved in strategic thinking lays the tracks for the smooth execution of a plan, no matter the goal.

Team Development

A manager wants the team to be effective, and a leader wants the team to be dynamic. Good leaders are concerned with the team’s well-being and personal development. It is not unheard of for strong leaders in organizations to ask their staff members to read mindset books or take leadership training. Executive directors who see their team as an essential part of the longevity of the nonprofit understand that a happy, fulfilled team will go the extra mile to meet goals.

There are several stages that teams go through as they get to know each other and adapt to each other’s work styles and personalities. The transition periods between stages are when the executive director needs to help smooth the waters. Being mindful of these inevitable periods and consistently providing professional development opportunities will help strengthen your place as a leader.


The common thread that runs through all nonprofits is the need for effective communication. For executive directors, there is a daily need for communicating on many different platforms.

First, learning to listen empathetically to your team is essential. Developing active listening skills is one of the key steps in developing a dialed-in team. Being able to express yourself with clarity and conviction will ensure everyone is on the same page and understands their role.

Interpersonal communication is a necessary leadership skill, but there is also the need for the ability to express yourself through storytelling. When addressing a room full of clients, donors, or staff members, it is important to ensure that you impact your audience, make emotional connections, and light the spark of motivation. This is a skill that can easily be learned.

How To Improve Your Executive Director Leadership Skills

Luckily, developing executive director leadership skills is easier than ever. Strong leaders are in demand in the workplace, and the market is filled with books from experienced professionals. A quick glance through podcast titles will find you many episodes that you can listen to on the way to work. It is easy to fit leadership development into the otherwise mundane minutes of your day, such as your commute or while you are getting ready in the morning.

If you are serious about improving executive director leadership skills, there are several courses that you can take. Many universities offer continuing education certificates to professionals for a reasonable price. Some of them are available online. If you are looking for higher education, numerous universities offer Master’s degrees in Leadership.


Deciding whether you are a manager or a leader is the best way to fast-track your career as an executive director. If you are looking to make a name for yourself in the industry, propel your organization forward, and attract donors, this is best done through leadership. Promoting your vision for the future, proving that you are capable of running a cohesive team, and demonstrating your success to the public will help establish you as a forerunner in the nonprofit world.

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