Interview with Ron Donnini
I recently interviewed Ron Donnini. While many won’t recognize him, anyone who’s had the opportunity to work or be led by Ron won’t ever forget him. Ron is the President/CEO of The Malphurs Group, a consultant agency that provides strategic planning and leadership resources to churches and other organizations. Ron has a wealth of leadership experience, ranging from international manufacturing companies to start-ups to faith-based non-profit organizations.
He’s also—to my great fortune—a mentor and personal friend. I know you’ll benefit from his insight as well.
DG :: What have you learned most recently about leadership?
RD :: That I don’t know all that I need to know. There are times I think I understand a situation and know the solution, but then I end up being very surprised—there was some part of it the situation I did not consider. I find that the leadership role challenges me all the time to have even more wisdom, even more discernment. I have to have the discipline of listening well. I have to be talking to folks, wrestling with leadership myself in all areas.
DG :: When did you first look in the mirror and realize that you were a leader?
RD :: Honestly, I believe it started with baseball when I was seven years old. I was a pitcher (probably from wanting to be in control), and I remember one day the team coming around me and I realized they were looking to me. Even at seven years old, I was aware that my teammates were watching how I reacted to the game, in an inning that I pitched horribly. If I was all down at the mouth and throwing my glove and being an idiot, it wasn’t going to help anybody.
I realized it again in my early 20’s in my first sales job in Decatur, Alabama. A gentleman by the name of Gary Jost (with Monsanto) got to know me and said, “Ron, I don’t think you understand the leader that you are.” He became a mentor, which gave me such confidence—not arrogance, but confidence. The reinforcement from someone 10-15 years my senior was invaluable. I looked at myself differently. I began to trust my ability to read people, to discern things. I’ve had a series of people over the years recognized leadership in me and challenge me to continue to develop.
The reinforcement from someone 10-15 years my senior was invaluable. I looked at myself differently. I began to trust my ability to read people, to discern things.
DG :: Where do you think you’d be if you did not have those people telling you those things and creating that awareness of yourself?
RD :: I don’t know; I don’t think it’d be good. The confidence I received drove me. I began to notice my influence, not from a haughty point of view but from a realization that people were listening to me.
DG :: You’ve seen outstanding leaders in both the marketplace and in the nonprofit space. What similarities and differences do they have, and what are their respective strengths and weaknesses?
RD :: The biggest difference is organizational. Non-profit leaders are not held to the same standards that marketplace leaders are. Companies develop detailed goals and objectives that produce hard and fast responsibilities, and leaders are held accountable to them. Non-profit leaders aren’t, more often than not. Many churches [the non-profits we work with most often] don’t have business moxie. They are program-driven, not strategically driven. They are often strong on passion, but weak on planning and accountability. They don’t have a board or other supporting leadership in place to hold leaders to a task. As a result they’re not nearly as effective as they could be.
In terms of their strengths and weaknesses, business leaders are much more strategic. The main problem in the non-profit or ministry world is the training is in the area of focus or advocacy, not leadership. They have a perception that leadership is sort of “organic”—which is a bunch of baloney: You need the same skills and competencies to run a church as you do to run a corporation. On top of that, non-profit and church leaders frequently aren’t paid what marketplace leaders are, and unfortunately you get what you pay for. There’s also very little leadership evaluation going on, so the end result is lots of blind spots and sometimes running their organization in a way that isn’t healthy. Which is why I think leadership is actually harder in the church world.
DG :: What leadership challenges are—or should be—our highest priority?
RD :: To me it is helping other leaders improve. Seeing leadership skills in others, then putting them in a place where they can lead and training them. We get caught up in our own busy-ness, and we don’t look out for the others who have leadership ability and pour into them.
I know it’s cliché but I truly believe that the servant leader concept works. I’m not going to be on this earth forever, and the organization’s going to live beyond me. The only way it’s going to continue to grow is to pour into the lives of the younger people around you. They are the future. We say that all the time, but we don’t do it.
… I truly believe that the servant leader concept works. … the organization’s going to live beyond me. The only way it’s going to continue to grow is to pour into the lives of the younger people around you. They are the future.
DG :: What’s the best piece of leadership advice you’ve ever received?
RD :: Be Yourself. Don’t try to be somebody else—somebody you’re not. You have personality, you have passions, you have intellect. Just be yourself, and lead within yourself.
DG :: What do you do to continually get better?
RD :: First is books. I read a lot, and I pick topics that challenge and enlighten me.
Another is my fellow elder board members [Ron is on the board of Pantego Bible Church in Ft. Worth, TX]. We are close, and we work on each other on a regular basis. They hold me to a spiritual accountability that is really healthy for me.
And I would say that the most consistent thing over the last 20 years is having other people around you that can pour into you, and who you can be vulnerable with—that is how I stay sharp. I’m a part of a personal accountability group with four men. They know most everything about me. They are people I can ask questions of, and vice versa. We have a familiarity and a depth of relationship that is vital. They’ve told me some really hard things over the years, but I needed to hear them. It’s taken years to develop—and by the way, there’s only a handful of people that you can do that with.
DG :: I often say that we learn more from failure than from success. Assuming you agree, what have your greatest leadership failures taught you?
RD :: I think I would say that’s true to a great degree. For me one of the things I learned came from breaking a confidence and they found out. The result is the other person can’t trust you anymore. That, to me, … just breaks my heart. So I’m very careful not to do that ever again. To me trust is a very paramount thing. You can be a CEO of a company, but the guy on the factory floor needs to know that you care about him, and trust that you’re looking out for his best interests. So I do anything I can to build trust.
DG :: It’s been said that you can’t be a good leader unless you’re a good follower. Does that resonate with you?
RD :: [Pause] I think that’s true. You’re always going to have somebody over you. Even if you’re the CEO, you’ve got a board that you’re dealing with. But we all have to be good team players. Being a follower means allowing someone else to take the lead in a given area. I think that’s healthy. I think it’s a misnomer to think that you’re going to lead in every aspect of your organization.
DG :: What else?
RD :: There are different seasons in leadership, and there are different organizations. You have to be able to navigate those organizations, find out their culture and navigate that culture with your leadership style. You have to know people; be a student of personalities and organizational dynamics. You have to be able to read people. It affects how you use all your skills. That art is critical.
I call that being nimble, being able to move within that organization without upsetting people along the way or being demanding; you have to be able to read situations, which takes experience. It’s an art; it’s a skill, too, but it’s really an art. A good mentor will work with you to help you understand yourself and debrief with you. I don’t think we do that enough with young leaders—at all.
You have to know people; be a student of personalities and organizational dynamics. You have to be able to read people. It affects how you use all your skills. That art is critical.
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