Even If You Hate Gladiatorial Sport


Leap Update, January 2015

Last month, we gave a shout-out to The New Yorker‘s James Surowiecki for his article “Better All the Time” about the performance revolution in basketball, performing arts, auto manufacturing, and other fields. We wouldn’t be surprised if Surowiecki is at work this week on a sequel, drawing teachable lessons from the Seattle Seahawks’ journey back to the Super Bowl. In the past four years, the Seahawks have defied the odds and convention in so many ways. They provoke fascinating questions not only for Seahawks fans like Lowell, a Seattle transplant who successfully shook off his childhood love for the DC team that dares not speak its name, but also for anyone who wants to understand the secrets of performance cultures.

How has the team’s head coach, given up for dead by two previous NFL teams, created such a strong, successful culture? What’s the secret formula for consistently finding great talent others missed and then coaching those overlooked players into game-changing stars? We hope that Surowiecki or another writer/thinker will provide some answers to these and other questions in the coming weeks.

And while we don’t know what will emerge, we suspect the insights will line up well with something we’re finalizing with dozens of respected leaders in the nonprofit field. Next month, this update will focus on and link to “The Performance Imperative: a framework for social-sector excellence,” a collective effort to provide a common definition of “high-performance organization” and unpack the seven organizational pillars that can help leaders achieve high performance. To crib from the late author Stephen Covey, these are the seven habits of highly effective organizations. Whether your organization is playing for gridiron glory or, far more important, for the lives of families in need, we hope “The Performance Imperative” will help you on your journey to high performance.

And now for this month’s updates from around the Leap of Reason community:

  • In “What is a Leadership Funder?,” Barr Foundation President Jim Canales foreshadows the number-one theme of “The Performance Imperative”: the inescapable importance of great leadership. “Many in philanthropy have come to realize that leadership development is not a stand-alone, separate domain,” he writes. “Indeed, building, fostering, and enhancing the leadership abilities of nonprofit partners is inextricably linked to the success of practically any activity that foundations support. We cannot overstate the centrality of effective leadership toward impact and outcomes.”
  • We commend Roca, Inc. and FSG for their new video on how leaders must engage the ecosystems in which we operate rather than just focusing on our own individual, siloed interventions. The video features Molly Baldwin, Roca’s wonderful CEO, offering uncommon candor on the shortcomings of her early approach to helping young men in crisis. “It became completely clear that the way in which we were thinking about relationships was completely wrong.”
  • Given that almost no one disputes the central importance of great leadership, why don’t more nonprofits invest proactively in cultivating it? In the Bridgespan article “How to Recognize—and Fix—Human Capital Management Issues,” AchieveMission CEO James Shepard, Jr. offers a perspective on this In brief, nonprofits routinely miss key signs that they face leadership challenges that can undermine their effectiveness—and only react when the problems are no longer small, simple, or easily remedied.
  • Even if you don’t have time to read Ron Haskins‘s new book Show Me the Evidence, please give five minutes to his powerful New York Times op-ed “Social Programs That Work.” Haskins, a former senior aide to President George W. Bush, offers praise for President Obama’s efforts to use evidence to improve social programs and issues a bipartisan call to action to strengthen these efforts. “Over time, an evidence-based approach should be a prerequisite for any program to get federal dollars,” he writes. “Social policy is too important to be left to guesswork.”
  • For an example of evidence-based approaches at the municipal level, please check out “Cyrus Vance Jr.’s ‘Moneyball’ Approach to Crime,” also in The New York Times. Reporter Chip Brown explains how Vance, the district attorney of New York County (and son of a U.S. Secretary of State), is using data-driven approaches so his legal team can play offense rather than only defense. “The question I had when I came in was, Do we sit on our hands waiting for crime to tick up, or can we do something to drive crime lower? I wanted to develop what I call intelligence-driven prosecution.” We have no randomized-controlled trial that proves the merits of Vance’s approach, but his approach seems to be one important factor in New York City’s falling crime rate.
  • David Bornstein‘s Fixes blog post “The News We Need to Hear” is a good complement to the Haskins op-ed and Vance profile. “The key is not to ask questions like: ‘Does Head Start work?’ or ‘Does foreign aid work?’ … but to focus on opportunities for learning,” he writes. “The real insights come from the differences: discovering when they work and when they don’t, and why.”
  • We saved this one for last, so our horn tooting isn’t too loud: Leap of Reason‘s circulation has, well, leaped past the 80,000-book mark—thanks to all of you. Meanwhile, the circulation of David Hunter’s companion volume, Working Hard—and Working Well, is at nearly 17,000 and climbing. Both figures are well beyond our wildest expectations.


Events/Webinars for Raising Performance:

Mario and Lowell

Mario Morino is Chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of the lead essay in Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, co-editor of Leap of Reason, and advisor to the Leap of Reason initiative.

Download complimentary copies of Leap of Reason and Working Hard—and Working Well. Check out our suite of materials and video gallery for strategic planning sessions, performance-management projects, professional development, board meetings, or graduate/undergrad classes. And encourage colleagues and stakeholders to sign up for monthly updates to help power their leap.