Magical Thinking

Recently I had dinner with two leaders of very large organizations who have overseen the distribution of tens of millions of dollars of grant money.

One of the most interesting topics of conversation was the great divide between very successful organizations and those who struggle for survival year after year. One is able to attract the best and brightest volunteers and staff, while the other type seems “stuck” with very little growth or forward momentum. For this second kind of organization, the criteria for board members tends to be just finding people who will come to the meetings, and for staff is just finding people who will work for the salaries they are paying.

It was interesting to hear what they thought was at the heart of this great divide. One felt that the major issue was a severe lack of resources. Today it is more difficult than ever to get out of organizational poverty. Colleges and well-positioned organizations have entire departments of well-trained professionals pursuing relationships and resources while many organizations rely primarily on one person who is supported by part-time people, volunteers, or people just out of college. It is no surprise who is winning almost all of those battles.

The other leader mentioned the issue of “magical thinking.” His frustration as a funder had been the issue of the “if…only” organizations. Magical thinking goes something like this: “your staff is not qualified to manage this program” with a response of “but they really are dedicated.” One cannot discount dedication to one’s cause or profession, but if a person lacks the experience or training to do the job, no amount of dedication can make them more effective or productive. Other examples of magical thinking include putting together a committee (or two or three) to come up with “wonderful ideas” to turn the organization around. Magical thinking says that you are only a one wonderful idea or one dedicated person away from stunning success.

The problem with magical thinking is that it is contagious. People who want to focus on long-term strategies and do business development seem dull compared with the excitement of magical thinking. These dull entrepreneurs, often with an “accountant’s personality” require long-term commitment to an agreed upon course of action. They probably will not last very long in an organization dominated by magical thinkers. Magical thinkers need exciting people who produce, or seem to produce, quick results. As researcher Jim Collins discusses in his book “Good to Great,” the low-key people are always the leaders who are creating a great organization or company. They just do not get the attention or the press, and they do not meet many people’s expectations of what a successful leader should look like or how they should act.

Solutions to bridging this divide do not seem evident. One leader is developing a grants program next year to try to move a few organizations from the under-resourced position. It will be interesting to see if it meets with success.


2 thoughts on “Magical Thinking

  1. I believe this is part of HLAA’s problem. The BOT consists of wonderful, dedicated individuals who have been involved with HLAA for many years. They have sacrificed a great deal, and are really “worthy” people! However, most lack the experience needed to be on a national board that generates real growth. Likely, many are “magical thinkers”.

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