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Passion is a Double-edged Sword

By Tony Ferlenda

There is no shortage of passion in the nonprofit sector. It is the one thing we all have in common. Passionate people get things done. We see it everywhere. Passionate boards, staff and volunteers deliver incredible results in our communities. As I work with nonprofit leaders across the State, I am fortunate to see it every day.

There is a dark side though, and it can be revealed in different ways. When passionate people come together to pursue a common vision, the double-edged sword can cut the other way. Very passionate people are typically very driven, but they also can be inflexible. That combination can be both dangerous and divisive. A minor difference of opinion, for example, can turn into a major dispute – or worse.

The dark side of passion can also be revealed within the leader who lets their passion for the cause dominate their lives in unhealthy ways. You know who you are. The work you do is important, and you want to be successful. You enjoy what you do and have a desire to make a positive impact. This is your “calling” so you work hard because you want to. Positive progress feeds your passion. Then you work harder. At some point, your passion becomes your obsession and your obligation. Every success and every failure is felt very deeply. 40 hours is never enough – sometimes even 50. If you’re not at work, you’re thinking about work. Left unchecked, this can lead to disillusionment, despair, and burnout.

This is especially common with Executive Directors. They are uniquely positioned in the org chart between the Board and the Staff, which requires them to manage up and down simultaneously. And with no colleagues to lean on, it can be isolating. Combine this with a consistently demanding workload, and over time, you realize this is unsustainable. Your passion alone is not enough. 

So here are some thoughts that may be helpful.

  • Begin with the end in mind. When group conflict arises and you get stuck, refer to your Mission, Vision, and Values. These have been previously agreed on, so let them be your guide as you work backward toward a resolution. Yes, passion is baked into those statements, but they’re also balanced with logic, action, and collective input.
  • Speaking of balance, it’s important to remember that this is not an all-or-nothing game. It’s unreasonable to expect to win every time. Conceding is not a sign of weakness. Collaborate. Compromise.  Emphasize peaceful resolutions. Strive to live in harmony with your passion…as well as with others’.   
  • What do you value most in life? What are your priorities? Yes, work is important, but if it’s impacting those things in life which take precedence, you may want to reevaluate.
  • To be clear, it’s healthy and advisable to pursue your calling with passion and drive, if it gives you meaning and fulfilment. But don’t be blinded by it. Just be aware of the potential negative side effects. Diving into the deep end and staying there can be all consuming, leaving other things to suffer. Take time to rethink, revitalize and re-center.
  • You’re not alone. Join a community of like-minded individuals. DANA’s Communities of Practice (CoP)  are offered as a way to build relationships and share best practices between staff who hold similar positions. Our CoP for Executive Directors meets quarterly and is led by DANA’s President & CEO, Sheila Bravo. Click here to register.

“A burning passion coupled with absolute detachment is the key to all success.” Mahatma Gandhi