Design a site like this with
Get started

Duties of Effective Leaders

While there is extensive work committed to what a leader should or ought to do in their work, much of the work is outdated or irrelevant to nonprofit leaders specifically. Unlike private leadership, nonprofit leaders have duties that transcend immediate employees, organizational management, and stakeholders. Leaders in the nonprofit sector have unique duties to the organization’s employees under their care, volunteers, the board, third-party stakeholders, as well as to the organization’s goals, missions, success, and reputation. Just as there has been a lot of work committed to leadership, so too have authors spilt ink over the duties that pertain specifically to an effective leader in the nonprofit sector. By reviewing a general survey of these pieces, this literature review will examine and seek to identify the exact duties of effective nonprofit leadership.

Although scholarship regarding leadership and strategies have been active for centuries leading back even as far as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Confucious’ The Antelects, and various religious works, the material is difficult to uncover concrete objective leadership qualities, skills, behaviors, or strategies out of them – at best these aged works offer one or two lines of leadership that can be molded to fit almost any situation. It is true as noted by Warren Bennis, that “never have so many labored so long to say so little … leadership is the most studied and least understood topic of any social sciences” (van Wart, 2003, p.75). This remark may not be giving enough credit to the ancient wisdom that have survived the time, but does offer the rather dark take that the study of leadership seemed to have covered very little ground in the time it has been studied. However when the vast array of leadership authorship is viewed in the frame of history, then a consistent theme of leadership qualities can be uncovered. 

An important note to make before continuing is that while general leadership study may seem to be spinning its wheels to some, the nuanced study of specific fields are making headway in boiling down the age-old wisdom of the past and combining it with real-life empirical studies to discover the true nature of leadership and what it takes to be effective. There is no better example of this point than the decade-old extensive research included in The Leadership Challenge (2017) by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner who committed over forty years empirically investigating what leaders and followers alike consider good leadership behavior. Through this investigation they crafted the five principles of exemplary leadership, a concise and relatable list of principles – containing modeling the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable other to act, and encourage the heart – that not only take the best from the wisdom of the past, but also incorporates relatable and incredibly insightful lessons from the present. Confucius (2014), for example, repeatedly asserted that a leader should not only hold himself as an example, but also treat followers humanly while inspiring them to do the same which is similar to modeling the way and encouraging the heart (p. 117). Sun Tzu (2003), along the same vein, implores the reader to treat followers with respect and decency with a shared vision while continuing to seek innovation – corresponding to the principles challenge the process, model the way, and encourage the heart (p. 16-17). And while the reader may enjoy a leadership review spanning centuries, the scope of this literature review will be limited to more modern research. The point is important to make to stress the ongoing study of leadership and how nuanced research on the topic is improving and that this research, when reviewed together, shows shared duties for leaders. 

Where some ideas in historical texts and doctrines faded away and seen as outdated, others have stayed. This can be seen more clearly by examining various leadership theories of the past while identifying the consistent duties of a leader. Many scholars seek to consolidate existing leadership theories into a concise list –  a quick library search reveals that there are anywhere between three, four, six, eight, and even ten distinct leadership types. This multitude of theories can make it hard for one to determine the consistent duties involved, so the scope of this review will focus on theories that are more distinct in the passing of time. Reviewing theories like this allows a better understanding for the direction leadership is headed and the consistent duties for a leader. Melisa Horner (1997) in Leadership theory: Past, present, and future offers a more succinct yet more appropriate list of theories and methods of leadership noting that while some theories describe leadership as a process, most theories look to people to gain understanding. While these theories all seek to identify traits, qualities, behaviors and relationships, there is a clear evolution of theory that leads one to see leadership as a relationship. Horner notes that theories first revolved around leaders as a person, they quickly began focusing on what leaders do concerning people and concerning output (1997, p 272). As theory evolved, it studied leader’s behaviors in regards to traits and situation and finally came to understand leadership as a “complex analysis of the leader and the situation” and how the leader developed relationships with the followers as well as the organization and organizational culture (Horner, 1997, p. 272). This relationship was noted by other well-known writers as well. Chester Barnard asserted that “the relationship between the individual and the organization constitutes a free and contractual agreement” and insisted on the duty that “the organization must respond to individuals’ needs as they perceive them” (Fry & Raadschelders, 2014, p 237). This slow-coming breakthrough seems to have shifted the focus from the leader herself to how she forms relationships with and meets the needs of her followers. A breakthrough that seems to assert that certain duties are owed from the organization and leader to the followers. Cadwell, et al. (2007), found that these identifiable duties are “inherently a part of the personal relationship between leaders and followers” and also note that there is “a growing body of literature about social and psychological contracts confirms that leaders who honor social and psychological contracts increase both the levels of commitment and performance of those who they lead” sufficiently confirming that duty exists in an effective leader (p 156).

Max Depree (1989) constructs a model for leadership built on servitude and indebtedness – owing certain services to followers to better their well being as well as better reaching the goals of the organization. The debts a leader owes consists of: financial health, institutional value, future leadership, a covenant with the institution’s people, maturity, trust and dignity, and freedom. The first two are what leaders owe to the organization and those working to meet the shared goals of the organization which can absolutely be seen as caring for the mission as well as the people working for it. While studies suggested “that leaders ought to balance the way they assess their organizations by looking at more than financial performance”, this aspect cannot be forgotten as it is the most basic of obligations and serves the organizational mission and the people involved in it (Zimmerman, 2009, p 10). The remaining debts owed consist of how a leader treats the followers or team members in their care. The debt of future leadership consists of improving members and giving them the opportunities to be the best they can be by recognizing “the great benefits that accrue to organizations by helping organization members to achieve their highest potential” (Caldwell, 2011, p 348). Mary Parker Follett, a master of communication, noted multiple ways of resolving conflict in terms of power. She saw power as the key issue of social relations and identified both power-over people as well as power with people. This distinction highlights the transition from leaders before and after the empathetic approach to leadership became common. Follett identifies another duty in regards to a servant-type-leader when she notes, “neither pay nor work bestows the right to power-over another. We can have power only over ourselves…You have power over a slave, you have rights with a servant” (Mele, 2007, p 412). This added duty of care inserts an empathetic aspect as well as a servitude-style leader into the list of duties observed. Focusing on increasing member potential and wellbeing also speaks to the other duties of maturity, trust, dignity, and freedom. Caldwell (2011) notes that although fairness and trust are  subjective matters, “high trust organizational cultures achieve increased productivity, profitability, and customer satisfaction” and that “creating a culture of fairness is a key factor” in promoting leadership (p 348). Other studies have shown that in addition to more fairness and trust, greater autonomy and freedom increase efficiency as well as trust and loyalty to a leader (Basu & Green, 1997). 

More duties can be clearly identified when more attention is paid to what influences the leadership culture – that would be the government and history of the country. While many actors in the course of history could be seen as an influencer, Thomas Jefferson seems to be a worthy figurehead in this area and has devoted much writing to the leadership in the young nation.  Newbold (2010) identifies a clear set of contributions or guidelines Jefferson asserted was the responsibility of the government to its people – and, in relation, is a duty of a leader to their followers. The identifiable ;leadership elements include, responsibility, accountability, efficiency, harmony, adaptability, and the importance of civic duty (p. 11, 98, & 100). Just as these qualities keep the government in line to respect the will of the people, so too do these duties keep leaders involved with their followers to ensure success in the organizational mission. Efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability has of course been echoed by public administration writers of the past like Woodrow Wilson only because they too have been influenced by the same ethos of leadership who, in his 1887 piece “The Study of Administration” explains that work should be administered “with enlightenment, with equity, with speed, and without friction” (Shafritz, et al., 2004, p 22). Indeed, along with the new-found requirement of meeting the needs of the follower, a leader must keep in mind the duty of organizational success in terms of finances, efficiency, and reputation. 

So far in this review, The following duties have been identified in very broad terms and include:

  1. A duty to organizational health (financial as well as reputation and mission)
  2. Trust and dignity
  3. Efficiency and accountability
  4. A relationship with followers to meet their needs
    1. Follower potential
    2. Follower growth
    3. Duty of empathy and care
    4. Fairness and trust
    5. Freedom and autonomy

A proper review of leadership would be left wanting if it left out the previously mentioned work of Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge. The work seems to be incredibly important to return to as it contains a well-researched, concise, and consistent review of desirable leadership qualities making the list of duties required by a leader that much more objective. The qualities found by Kouzes and Posner (2017) include five duties: 1) Model the way – affirming shared values and goals and setting an example; 2) Inspire a shared vision – inspiring a vision of the future that involves common aspirations; 3) challenge the process – as a way of remaining innovative; 4) enabling others to act – fostering trust and relationships while extending freedom and responsibility; 5) Encourage the heart – recognize contributions and celebrating collective values and victories. These five duties are a collective of other small duties but boosts the duties and qualities already covered in this review as well as the growing concern and need for a servant leader whose mind is often drawn to the needs of their followers rather than solely on the needs of the organization.

The course of literature regarding leadership is a long and well-trodden one. Since ancient times, much has been said regarding what makes a good leader, what a good leader does, and how they should be a leader. It is safe to say that leadership content is not left wanting for material – but the continuation of leadership literature as well as the long history of writing leaves scholars today with an interesting position: The qualities can be surveyed throughout time and specific qualities and duties can be identified and reflected on with the assistance their position in time. Not only can characteristics be identified, but the general direction of leadership and it’s changes can be viewed as a way to see what has been consistent and where leadership is going. From this review, it is clear that leaders have a basic obligation to the organization and it’s well-being, but relatively recent works have focused on a different aspect of organizational success: The relationship between the leader and their followers. So beyond organizational health, leaders are identified as having a duty to trust, integrity, efficiency, accountability as well as to their follower’s needs and desires. It has been seen that meeting these needs is a necessary duty of the leader if organizational health and follower well-being is to be increased. 


Basu, R. and Green, S.G. (1997). Leader-member exchange and transformational leadership: An empirical examination of innovative behaviors in leader-member dyads. Journal of Applied Social Psychology 27(6), p 477- 499.

Caldwell, C., Hayes, L.A., Karri, R., Bernal, P. (2007). Ethical stewardship – Implications for leadership and trust. Journal of Business Ethics 78, p 153-164.

Caldwell, C. (2011). Duties owed to organizational citizens – Ethical insights for today’s leader. Journal of Business Ethics 102, p 343-356. 

Confucius and Chin, A (tran) (2014). The analects. New York, NY: Penguin Books

Fry, B.R and Raadschelders, J.C.N. (2014). Mastering public administration: From Max Weber to Dwight Waldo (3rd ed). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications Inc. 

Horner, M. (1997) Leadership theory: Past, present, and future. Team Performance Management 3(4), p. 270-287.

Kouzes, J.M. and Posner, B.Z. (2017). The leadership challenge: How to make extraordinary things happen 6th ed. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Mele, D. (2007). Ethics in Management: Exploring the contribution of Mary Parker Follett. International Journal of Public Administration 30(4), p 405-424.

Newbold, S.P. (2010). All but forgotten: Thomas Jefferson and the development of public administration. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Shafritz, J.M., Hyde, A.C., and Parkes, S.J. (2004). Classics of Public Administration (5th ed). Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth. 

Sun Tzu, Galvin, D (ed), and Giles, L. (tran) (2003) The art of war. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Classics.

Van Wart, M. (2003) “Public-Sector Leadership Theory: An assessment” in James L. Perry (ed) (2010) The Jossey-Bass Reader on Nonprofit and Public Leadership San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. P. 73-107.

Zimmerman, J. (2009) Using a balanced scorecard in a nonprofit organization. Nonprofit World 27(3), p 10 – 12.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: