Mark S A Smith

  Mark S A Smith


Leadership isn’t just the ability to attract and direct good people. It’s the intention and skills required to operate a sustainable, scalable, profitable operation.

“85% of your financial success is due to your personality and ability to communicate, negotiate, and lead. Shockingly, only 15% is due to technical knowledge,” wrote Charles Riborg Mann in 1918. This observation is still true today. While knowledge is a component of success, it’s not enough. Lots of smart people work well below their cognitive capacity.

In working with executives over the past three decades, I’ve identified seven skills required for sustainable success. When one skill is weak or missing, organizational trouble will follow. But these skills can be developed and improved, so assess what you need to expand.


Presence is that certain something that attracts people, commands their attention, and permits leaders to engage. It is the ultimate in first impressions. Without it, you won’t get a chance to lead, even with a position of authority.

Presence is a combination of emotional intelligence (EQ) and integrity, creating charismatic leadership. According to EQ researchers, 70% of your executive success is due to your EQ and 30% to your mental capacity (IQ). EQ is the ability to balance your awareness and management of yourself, others, and things. Narcissists are unaware of others. Minimalists are unaware of things. Altruists are unaware of themselves. A successful executive balances broad awareness.

Another way of considering self-awareness versus awareness of others is the concept of humility (not humiliation). “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less,” wrote C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. Without integrity, you’re doomed. Once others discover you’re not of your word, the game is over.

How do you balance your awareness? Which awareness requires attention?


Being free spirits, unbound by convention and routine, doesn’t work for executives. Discipline requires personal and professional routines. Within that structure, we can focus on the variables that we manage and direct. Steve Jobs wore a uniform of black mock turtleneck, blue jeans, and sneakers, one less thing to think about. Meditation also kept him centered and effective.

Without a personal routine, you’ll skip meals, not get enough sleep, and not get the exercise you need, all of which contribute to your most valuable resource, your cognitive capacity. Without an executive routine, you’ll fight fires all day and never attend to critical strategy, prioritization, and culture maintenance.

Does your daily routine support your resourcefulness? Does your executive routine ensure that every aspect of your business gets attention, especially strategy and culture alignment?


If you haven’t examined your vision within the past thirty days, you may face a looming disaster. Why? As Scott Adams says, “Goal thinkers only see what’s between them and the goal line. Systems thinkers avoid slow moving problems.” Scott points out the difference between being tactical, working to the goal, and being strategic, creating a system that generates goals.

Foresight is how we engineer our systems that generate value for our constituents. We must look beyond the horizon to deliver consistent, sustainable, and scalable value.

What is your vision horizon? If it’s not at least three years out, you’re on a downward path. When did you last revisit your vision? If it’s not in the last thirty days, you’re developing blind spots.

Business Acumen

Most leaders have strong skills in one area of business acumen: sales, marketing, operations, or knowledge base. Those who abdicate other responsibilities, without knowing how to select, direct, and manage those functions, almost always court disaster. I have done this and it almost tanked my organization.

Successful executives understand and direct business strategy and tactics, refusing to abdicate responsibility because of a lack of understanding, instead investing in knowing what’s required and why without necessarily knowing all the details of how it’s accomplished. The seven pillars of business are as follows.

  1. Products that create unique value for the target market
  2. Marketing that triggers relevant conversations
  3. Sales that facilitate profitable transactions
  4. Customer/client service that earns loyalty
  5. Operations that scale with economic cycles
  6. Finance that controls cash flow and funds the future
  7. Culture that upholds a unique brand experience

Don’t get hung up on the concept of sales as a nonprofit. This defines how you collect the funds, recruit your volunteers, or enroll your congregation, the consummation of the mutual relationship.

Can you clearly articulate your association brand? Branding is not your logo, color palate, or any other design element. Branding is a customer experience that

  1. They are willing to pay for
  2. They want to repeat
  3. They can’t get anywhere else
  4. They’ll tell others about

How proficient are you at each of the seven business pillars? Where do you need to improve your acumen? How can you get tutoring in the elements of that pillar?

Communication Skills

A successful executive must communicate ideas and actions clearly, aligned with how the audience is receiving communication, and judiciously use humor. Most teamwork issues are rooted in lack of communication skills or the inability to adjust communication styles to the person and task at hand. For example, there are times to be general in language, and there are times when extreme detail is required. Mixing up the generality or circumstance will incite boredom or confusion.

Each role in your organization requires a different approach to processing information. For example, your treasurer must be detail oriented and by the rules, while marketing must be flexible and creative. They require different approaches to communication and conversation.

Successful executives take responsibility to communicate in the way that works for their people. That’s often different from their natural way of communication. For this reason, you must choose people you don’t necessarily like to do tasks that you don’t like to do.

How often does your team have problems getting your message? If it’s more than rarely, you must work on your understanding of how people communicate.

Persuasion Skills

To lead, you must persuade others to align their priorities with yours. This requires negotiating skills and the ability to create agreement that all involved will accept. Successful executives know that negotiating ability is both the skills of getting more from their resources and being able to resist the demands of those who are out of alignment with the organization’s principles.

How frequently do you agree to things that you really don’t want? How often do you think that you could have gotten more with the other party still happy? How often do you feel that you could have been more persuasive? If it’s not rare, consider a course in executive negotiation skills or learn persuasion skills.

Resourceful Decisions

Successful executives are comfortable with uncertainty. They can act without knowing the complete roadmap because they have decision-making systems that lead to more resourceful decisions than bad decisions. For example, you drive at night by seeing only the area ahead of you illuminated by headlights, never seeing the entire road. You know your destination, making course corrections along the way.

The result is efficient allocation and management of resources: time, personal energy, imagination, people, and money. Resourceful decisions are based on a combination of the skills discussed above, plus a decision strategy that effectively considers the elements of the decision. The best executives use a checklist to ensure that critical elements get considered.

Gut decisions aren’t scalable, because you can’t teach others your gut method like you can with a decision checklist. Your gut is the final test, not the only test.

Do you have a decision-making checklist, one that you routinely use and refine? If not, build it.

How Did You Do?

Be honest with yourself, as you’re the one to benefit. Now that you’ve identified where you need to build your executive strengths, put together your personal plan to make it happen.

Mark S A Smith, a veteran of the business world who works with companies large and small to achieve their strategic goals for successful growth and sustainability, uses a holistic view of the business to deliver unique, valuable, and pragmatic ideas. He is the author of 13 popular books and sales guides and more than 400 magazine articles, and hosts the weekly podcast, He is a genuine Guerrilla Marketing guru, a certified Guerrilla Marketing Coach, and is on the faculty of the forthcoming SynerVision Summit.

This article is reprinted from Issue #9 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!

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