How Midsize Business Leaders Can Accomplish Their Mission When They Delegate Management

Many midsize CEOs we’ve worked with wonder what their job will be like once they’ve built a strong leadership team. After what is usually years of managing operations and responding to the day’s emergencies, they fear that “reading the newspaper” is their daily highlight. Still others find they are isolated from the front lines of the company where the mission – the company’s purpose for existing – is most tangible.

The current crisis in Ukraine provides a perfect example of leadership. I am not talking about Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine whose leadership and courage were indeed an inspiration. I am referring to Executive Director Anthony Borden, who leads an organization of 201 employees in 9 offices. He founded the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in 1992, and its mission is to give voice to people on the front lines of conflict and transition to help them drive change.

Borden, the managing director of this medium-sized nonprofit, entered Ukraine in the days before the war began to personally report on the situation. This is when the United States advised all its citizens to leave the country and issued its Level 4 Do Not Travel advisory. Find out why this CEO walked away from his desk during an incredibly busy time and put himself at risk to do the work that hundreds of his staff do every day.

Small business CEOs have to do a lot of the work execution. But as these companies become medium-sized, they need to build a strong management team that runs the organization on a day-to-day basis. A leader who makes too many decisions creates a bottleneck and generally slows growth. Managing an organization also distracts that leader from an increasingly important role: leadership. Leadership is needed as membership grows, demonstrating why the mission of the organization is important, empowering and encouraging all employees in the organization, and developing passion for the job.

The need for leadership is not heard in an email. It’s often not urgent and rarely makes it onto your to-do list. But for mid-sized organizations, when the CEO leverages their leadership role, they can ignite tremendous passion within the team.

Leaders need to think carefully about how they embrace their organization’s mission. Employees and customers can easily perceive the CEO as entitled, living a life of luxury and detached. Most CEOs I know and coach care deeply about their team and their mission. They bear heavy pressure and responsibility with seriousness and grace. But most people don’t know any CEO. They have no window into a CEO’s mind.

Borden explains the genesis of his passion for his cause. “My mother was a journalist, so I was brought up with writing and reporting as high values. I worked as a journalist and editor in New York before moving to London. We [IWPR] were created during the first Gulf War in Kuwait as a voluntary action. As that project was winding down, I picked it up and created IWPR. I felt there were alternative concepts of journalism that could contribute to better societies, and we needed an institutional base to drive that vision. It has been a major challenge to evolve into a general manager over the years. But ultimately I remain a journalist.

The best leaders are not mercenaries, running an organization purely for profit. They believe in what their company does. I ran an art publishing business for many years, providing images that brought comfort and beauty to hundreds of thousands of people. Perhaps not as noble as IWPR’s mission, but important and meaningful to many. Whether you provide rebar to secure buildings and bridges, or a wonderful whiskey enjoyed by many, or legal services to assist clients in court, every business has a mission. The best leaders are seen as the embodiment of this mission, and they inspire employees and customers.

Borden says, “This is an epochal conflict, shaking the foundations of the world we know. Our fundamental values ​​of freedom and democracy are at stake. As a journalist, the opportunity to testify is unavoidable. It’s also a ‘white-hot’ opportunity to try and break the molds, work differently, kick our whole operation (including myself) into high gear and see how we respond. If not now when?”

Freeing oneself from the management of a medium-sized organization is a prerequisite for redeploying oneself as a missionary. As a small business, scaling the organization and managing the business is a challenge that most CEOs face on a personal level. Yet, as the company grows through midsize, it can usually afford to hire strong managers who increasingly run the organization on a day-to-day basis. But management is not leadership. However, management is essential. A powerful leader delegates the management of the organization in order to live in the future, in the mission, seeing the detour to pull the organization forward.

Borden says, “Given our existing programmatic commitments, I couldn’t have gone to the war zone in Ukraine if we weren’t in a reasonably good position, financially and structurally. A lot of effort over the past few years has gone into building a senior team, led by a superb COO, so that I can free myself from most day-to-day management duties. I consider this a gift for me and for our cause.

Yet the benefits of leaving the boardroom to do “real work” in the field are immense. The warehouse team at my art publishing company loved that, in a pinch, I got off and loaded the trucks with them. I was getting sweaty and dirty, and they were working twice as hard by my side. I didn’t have to do this often, but it showed, in a language they related to, that I really cared about serving our customers. Frankly, it wasn’t the best use of my time, but the motivational impact of doing it once in a while was amazing. The truth is, I liked it. I enjoyed helping my team.

Borden reported a similar affinity for the grassroots work of his organization and his people. “We have four employees in Ukraine, and I felt it was impossible not to be with them. Given the incredibly high stakes, I also wanted to make sure IWPR did everything in its power to challenge Putin’s propaganda, and that could only happen if I was there. We work with an extensive network of local media and civic groups – some of which played key roles in the Maidan revolution that toppled Putin’s puppet. I know from my days in Sarajevo that the bonds made at such times are very powerful. Supporting the IWPR team at a time when they were on the brink of war was essential.

Another important element is how you communicate. Less is more. Simple, honest, unpolished communications are much more authentic. Sophisticated PR efforts or sleek, high-production-value presentations will do more harm than they help. See for yourself how Borden communicates simply yet incredibly powerfully by following him on Twitter @tonyborden. The IWPR website also disseminates thoughtful content.

The Borden team is acutely aware of its efforts and is responding accordingly. “The teams were incredibly supportive and worked around the clock to publish reports, build connections, help with both logistics and contacts, and produce editorials. I hope these efforts will inspire all staff to feel the vital importance of our work. ‘What do you think, there is a war?’ Well, there is, and everyone is reacting incredibly,” Borden says.

Few CEOs will have to take personal risks to demonstrate powerful leadership. Those who put in place the processes and teams that enable a leadership team to lead the business will find themselves with a wonderful opportunity to lead. Take this opportunity, find a way to connect with your organization’s mission and communicate it well.

Author’s Note: We deeply support the work of IWPR and encourage you to do the same. Visit their website here. Read the full interview transcript here.