How to Be an Authority without Being a Jerk

If you’re anything like me, then the idea of claiming to be an authority seems a little bit distasteful. Not just because of imposter syndrome – feeling like ‘who am I to claim to be an authority’, but also because authority is so closely linked to the word authoritarian – something I do not wish in any way to associate myself with. Nope, not me – I’m all about cooperation, sharing, and other bleeding heart stuff like that.

On a recent drive along I-80 in central Pennsylvania (I have some of my best thoughts while on the road), it occurred to me that my repulsion toward the word authority may be rooted in my interpretation of the word rather than what the word could potentially mean.

The concept of authority has become entangled with authoritarianism and top-down, hierarchical leadership styles that are slowly, but thankfully, becoming a relic of the past. We think of the word ‘authority’ to mean ‘I wrote the book. I’m special and better than (collective) you because I know it all – and anything you say to try and challenge me is just going to make you look like a fool.’

I see authority as an active process of envisioning and creating. It doesn’t mean that you wrote the book that sits on dusty shelves and nobody reads anymore but that you are actively and continually writing – creating – in response to an ever-changing world.

If you think you know everything you aren’t an authority; you’re a jerk and nobody cares about your impossible and improbable claims to know everything. The only way to establish authority while also building credibility and respect is to take creative risks, learn, renew perspectives, and repeat the process over and over again. Let’s rewrite the script on authority.

How to Be Innovative When Writing Proposals

Question: I’m working on a proposal related to drug and substance abuse that will benefit women, youth, and girls. I need innovative methods to add to what I already have. Where can I find this information?

That’s a great question! Grant proposals always challenge us to do our very best in terms of program delivery and to articulate the most innovative aspects of our work in writing. While the requirements of funders can sometimes seem oppressive, they do seem to get us focused on improving what we offer to our communities.

Proposals should reflect the best of what your organization has done in the past as well as what you hope to do and achieve in the future. In terms of the future, there are several questions you should ask yourself to inform your thinking:

1. What has worked well in the past that we should continue to do or expand? Because you have experience working with the community, you already have a good sense of what has worked well. Identify these activities and continue to refine them. This is what distinguishes your organization from all of the others, making you more competitive as you apply for funding.

2. What have we done in the past that can be improved? As an experienced organization, you probably also have a lot of knowledge about what doesn’t work, or what could be done differently. Take time to identify, reflect upon, and discuss these areas so that they can be improved.

3. What needs does my community have that are not being met? As a nonprofit, you have an obligation to have first-hand knowledge of community needs and to address those needs as effectively as possible. This means you need to be present in the opportunity, ask questions, conduct formal assessments every so often, and listen to the people you are serving and your partners on an ongoing basis.

4. What feedback has the community given us about what we are doing well or not so well? Whether or not you have asked, I am sure that some of the people you are serving have given you positive or negative feedback – or even suggestions for improvement. Develop a system to keep track of this feedback and review it periodically to improve your programs.

5. What trends are impacting the field? Your presence in the community will help you understand not only what the people being served think and feel about what you are offering, but the whole of what is going on in their lives and in their community. Be aware of any type of change or activity in your community that might impact the people you are serving or your ability to provide service to people.

6. What innovative practices could be replicated by my organization to better meet the needs of my community? I believe this might be at the heart of your question! There are a lot of ways you can research innovative practice not just when writing proposals but throughout the year. Some sources of information include professional associations, trade journals, networking groups, and government resources. Stay in touch with your colleagues to know what they are doing. Make some calls to public officials or even funders to ask them what ideas they can share from other communities. Attend conferences, read, and imagine what could be possible!

Keep in mind that what is innovative and works in one community may not necessarily be effective in your community. As you come across ideas, share them with your coworkers and/or the people you serve to see if it might work. Keep in mind that you are serving complete people, even though your program may only impact a part of their lives. All of those other parts of their lives will impact their needs and what will work well as you interact with them. This also means that you should focus not just on addressing problems, but on preventing them while also creating a more positive environment.

7. What does my organization and program have the capacity to deliver? My philosophy is always to underpromise and overdeliver (hopefully you have noticed!). I often see nonprofit organizations promising the world in a proposal when there is no possible way that they could actually do what is being proposed. Only propose to do what is possible given the time, money, facilities, and other resources available to the organization. But never stop dreaming big; always be thinking about what additional things your organization could be doing if more funding became available.

To answer these questions, your organization needs to assess needs and capacity to address those needs on an ongoing basis – not just when it is time to write proposals. That way, you will be prepared to take action when you become aware of unexpected opportunities for funding or partnership.

Q&A: How can I create more opportunities for women as an educator?

Question:

In my society, women are not given higher positions even when she has quality, talent, and education. I want to be one of the people who can give leadership to women so they can stand on their feet. I am the owner and principal of a school. It is my soul. I am trying to make it better. What kinds of steps shall I take for its betterment? What do I have to do to become a successful businesswoman?

— Dedicated Educator and Leader in India

Answer:

Dear friend,

Your work with children is commendable. They need your time, your leadership, and your belief in their abilities. You have risen to this challenge and they, as well as your community, will surely benefit.

Your question raises three distinct but all very important questions which I will generalize a bit here:

  1. How can women succeed in a society that does not value them?
  2. How can I improve my organization so that it can have a stronger impact in the lives of children?
  3. What can I do to improve my own leadership and business skills to positively impact my school and my society?

These are all very complex dilemmas that impact women and leaders around the world. I wish that I could provide you with a simple, direct answer to these questions, but I don’t think I could fully answer these questions because 1) I don’t have all the answers; and 2) it would take a lifetime of studying, dialogue, and practice to discover the best approaches; and 3) I am not very familiar with your particular community and the specific challenges you face there. Nonetheless, I am going to provide you with some ideas that I think might be helpful not just for you but for the entire Women’s Creative Leadership Network.

Women are undervalued in many organizations and societies — in different ways and to various extents. I can identify with this challenge because I have witnessed and experienced this in my own country. We can be inspired by many examples throughout history, both in the past and more recently, of women beating the odds and attitudes about women evolving to become more understanding and inclusive. Yet, we still have quite a way to go.

There are a few things we can do, as women, to succeed despite the fact that we are undervalued in society. One of the key things we can to do to provoke transformation is to work together. We are stronger together than we are on our own. I have seen women turn against each other in competition to the detriment of our collective goals. We must support each other, uplift each other, and defend each other for our common good. My advice to you would be to connect with other women, share your struggles, ask for assistance, be helpful when you can, and have conversations about how you can collaborate. As we work on our own personal advancement, we must also stay focused on the bigger vision of creating opportunities for all women. Our success doesn’t need to come at someone else’s expense. We must also be steadfast in our insistence for rights, access, acceptance, inclusion, and appreciation of our contributions. When we are told directly or hear implicit messages that women are not good enough, we need to take action because we know better and the world will benefit from this knowledge. As women leaders, we need to actively educate and also stand as an example through our words and actions.

You do this all of this as an educator and as a leader. People look to you for guidance, wisdom, and support. By strengthening your school, you will also be able to address the needs of women in society. You can improve your school by: assessing what you need in terms of curriculum, facilities, materials, and support; developing partnerships in the community to improve the school’s access to what it needs; inviting parents and others in the community to get involved in the school through volunteer service that meet the school’s specific needs; remaining focused on your goals of providing a high quality education to your students; and continuing to learn about how other schools are addressing the challenges you are experiencing by reading and by making connections with your colleagues both in your country and around the world (you might be able to make some connections through the network). These are just a few ideas that may or may not be helpful depending on your particular circumstances.

And now for your final question. As an educator, you probably love to learn! To be a successful businesswoman, you need to never stop learning. You can learn by reading, participating in classes, reflecting on your experiences, and observing what other leaders in similar environments are doing. It is helpful to identify specific things that you need to learn and then seek that information, but another important part of learning is continually being open to receiving and re-interpreting information. There is so much that goes into being a good businesswoman, such as making good decisions, effectively managing resources, developing the right relationships, and taking care of yourself. Continue to practice and learn and your leadership and business potential will develop over time.

I hope these suggestions are helpful, and are the beginning of a conversation about how we can all create more opportunities for women in our societies. I invite all of our readers to share their ideas.