Leaders That Last is a series featuring interviews with seasoned nonprofit leaders on the practices and principles that helped them excel and maintain longevity in their roles.
Roland Warren always imagined himself being a dentist.
That is, until he realized he had horrible spatial dexterity (a must for dentists). But dentistry’s loss was the business and nonprofit world’s gain.
A graduate of Princeton University and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Roland is an inspirational servant leader with a heart for Christ and a mind for business.
After 20 years in the corporate world (with IBM, Pepsi, and Goldman Sachs), Roland spent 11 years as president of National Fatherhood Initiative before joining Care Net in 2012 as president and CEO.
Over the years, Roland has been featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Today Show, CNN, Dateline NBC, Fox News, The Wall Street Journal, Sports Illustrated, and Christianity Today. He’s also the author of two books: Bad Dads of the Bible: 8 Mistakes Every Good Dad Can Avoid and Raising Sons of Promise: A Guide for Single Mothers of Boys.
In a recent interview, we asked Roland to discuss the challenges he’s had to overcome in leadership, the skills every nonprofit leader needs, and the practices that helped him become a leader who lasts.
What were the disciplines or practices that really helped you thrive as a leader in the long run?
It’s a bit cliche, but one of the key things God put on my heart is to be a servant leader. I think the hardest part of doing it (as opposed to saying it), is cultivating a heart of humility. It’s really critical, and it has to be sincere. It’s hard to fake being humble for long. As I look at examples of other leaders who had challenges or moral failings, I think a lot of it goes back to pride. That’s always going to get you in trouble.
Early on, I learned I didn’t have to have all the answers. I spent my time making sure I had the right questions. If you don’t have all the answers and you can surround yourself with people who want to be a part of the vision God has given you, those people will help you get the answers. But you have to have the humility to listen.
I think humility is particularly important for leaders who move into an area that’s outside of their expertise. When I came to the National Fatherhood Initiative, I wasn’t a nonprofit leader. I didn’t really know a truckload about the issue in detail, so humility and listening were really important there. Then coming to Care Net, a lot of people have been working on the life issue a lot longer than I am.
A second thing that’s served me well is an understanding that when God gives you a vision to do something, he’ll also give you a method and timing. It takes discipline to really lean into that and acknowledge it.
When I came to CareNet, the word God gave me was don’t kill the Egyptian. It really pointed to the story of Moses. God had given him a vision that at some point he would free the Hebrews, his people.
But where he stumbled was with the method and the timing. He’d been trained in the Egyptian court in how to battle, how to fight, and how to do it in his own strength. He felt the time was now, so then he kills the Egyptian, and he thinks he’s ready to lead his people. He finds these two Hebrews fighting and he’s like, “Hey brothers! Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” And they’re like, “Who made you boss? Are you thinking of killing us as you killed the Egyptian?” The thing that makes you a leader is the willingness of others to follow you.
He didn’t have anybody who was willing to follow him and off he goes for 40 years in a sort of exile. When God comes to him again, he’s got a totally different perspective in terms of leading. He’s like, “Am I able to do this?” He has much more humility, whereas before he was very confident in his leadership ability. God renewed his vision and gave him a method and a timing. When he was ready to lead the people out, they followed.
I kept that perspective in mind when I came to Care Net. I had a vision around certain things like linking the fatherhood issue to the life issue. But, if I’d immediately tried to implement a bunch of that stuff, it wouldn’t have gone well. The internal culture just wasn’t ready for it.
First, I had to make sure that people in the organization bought into this vision of God’s design for family as a response to the life issue. If they didn’t see it or embrace it, we’d run into problems down the road. I had a vision, but the method and timing I had to wait on God for. That’s the hardest part, especially if you’re a competent person—having the discipline to wait on God, which requires real humility.
What were some specific challenges you faced in your leadership roles and how did you overcome them?
Our organization needed a paradigm shift. There’s an old saying that says the only one who likes change is babies, and they cry the whole time. When an organization has been successful in an existing paradigm, oftentimes moving to the next level requires a paradigm shift. And that’s challenging. People are resistant to change. You’ve really got to build trust with people in order for them to follow you. It’s going to be hard. A lot of times you have to make some difficult personnel changes.
The paradigm shift we needed to make was moving from a pro-life perspective to a pro abundant life perspective. We’ve linked our “why” statement to Jesus’s why statement—he came so that we might have life and life abundantly. He was talking not just about bios, or physical life, but zoe, this unique type of spiritual life, a life that only comes from a relationship with God.
John 10:10 became an organizing principle about how we should be thinking about the issue. A traditional pro-life perspective is basically about saving the baby and helping the mother. But, maybe she has four kids from four different guys. From a pro-life perspective, as long as she didn’t abort them, it’s a win. However, from a pro abundant life perspective, we are called to want more. We want her to experience God’s design for family, which leads to bios for her child and God’s call to discipleship, which leads to zoe for her, the man who got her pregnant, and her baby.
You have to be intentional about how you help your people get to a new perspective. Some people would say, What are you saying? That everything I’ve been doing in the past is wrong? As someone who was new to this movement, it was a delicate rhetorical exercise to help people make the shift. You want to set people’s minds ablaze without setting their hair on fire. You have to help people see the need for the paradigm shift while still honoring what’s been done in the past.
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