When the Leader of a Nonprofit Organisation Has Their Authority Undermined

Nonprofit leaders in authority are generally in a mode of wariness especially when their staff or team member refuses to follow their cue or instruction.  This behavior is often recognized among leaders as someone who is undermining their authority. They are many arguments to suggest that the problem is not undermining but in fact a combination of someone’s upbringing or their cultural background. Another argument is simply that the one who claims to be undermined is actually setting the stage to disguise his/her own leadership limitations.

It is always difficult to lead a team of passionate and mission driven personalities in a nonprofit set-up especially when the leader has to have more than just having technical clout but also being able to upheld certain values, virtues and integrity that is of the highest order. Most nonprofit leader are often caught in a situation of being undermined because they have either discovered certain aspects of governance or management that are bordering around fraud, or which involves a conflict of interest, misallocation of resources, or inadequate accountability and transparency. In such situations these good nonprofit leaders have to realise the consequences of their actions and how it could potentially have an individual or team undermine them.

The consequences to undermining can be quite dire if a leader does not establish its leadership position early and nip the issue in the bud. Unfortunately, one negative personality if not managed properly can possibly destroy a leader's career or derail the organisation’s goal. Negative behavior from one person can affect the entire workplace, and undo all of the good work of the entire team. Such a person actually weakens or lessens a leaders’ effectiveness gradually. Overtime a leaders’ ability to lead the organisation to achieve its objective will be diminished.

So how does a nonprofit leader know there are such disruptive people in their working vicinity? To know who these people are, the leader must be on the look out for certain signals (list is non-exhaustive);

1.             Demonstrating negativity: The disruptive person will occasionally disagree in a negative manner. Overtime the level of disagreement will increase from a casual corridor talk of grievance to a more wide spread and intense form of disruption.

2.             Making excuses to avoid work: The disruptive person will occasionally not support the leader to move forward. This person will often give excuses and find ways to avoid work, even after being given specific instruction.

3.             Failing to complete assignments: When work is given or delegated, the disruptive person will have reasons why the work is delayed or cannot be completed.

4.             Demonstrating disrespect or abusive behavior: Being grumpy or short-tempered on occasions in your presence, which can allude to being rude and disrespectful. One can often find such behavior to be at times arrogant and abusive.

5.             Publicity stints: The disruptive person will gossip, or share information that are private and confidential. They would even send emails of detest to a leader and blind copy others just to prove their point.

Another method to know if the general feeling in terms of decision making or execution of business is steering towards undermining, is to watch the leaders own behavior and how he/she react to certain situation.

Below are some examples of a leader's behaviour when they are sensing there are being undermined (list is non-exhaustive). It is important to note that each example on its own merits be attributed to certain singular predicaments. However, these examples if viewed in totality, chances are the leader may be behaving differently because of a sense of concern that there is some undermining happening in his/her camp.

1.             Doubting Oneself – this can happen at any moment during the course of being undermined. The leader can start to wonder if their own time is up and if they are no longer as effective as before. The sense of purpose is lost. 

2.             A sense of overcompensating – Leaders who begin to give in unnecessarily to ensure the individual or the team is happy or satisfied are doing more harm to themselves and the team in the long run.  Their better judgement is being clouded by issues of not wanting to be undermined.

3.             Reading between the lines – when a leader reads into what is being said more than they should, chances are they are looking for something that sends a signal that illustrates support or a positive assurance. In such circumstances what is happening is the leader is hoping there is no backlash or criticism.

4.             Having to prove oneself – losing confidence and being doubtful of oneself. Wanting to preserve ones position often will steer the leaders behavior towards being political and diplomatic in their relationship with others. 

It is important to know that in any case of being undermined, the conduct of the nonprofit leader must be influenced through their own moral compass in a direction that will prevent themselves from being undermine. Like any compass there are four directions to look for. These are; (i) moral awareness (recognition that a situation raises ethical issues); (ii) Moral decision making (determining what course of action is ethically sound); (iii) Moral intent: (identifying which values should take priority in the decision) and (iv) Moral action: (following through on ethical decisions).

Which direction should the nonprofit leader take is completely dependent on the predicament based on how far and how much undermining has happened. Most times when a nonprofit leader is in a situation of being undermined it is best to look for a solution that maintains the leader to remain of good ethics, strong morals and high integrity.

Finally every nonprofit leader who is undermined severely has to make a tough decisions that will warrant their own resignation or for them to take legal action against their employer which will be perceived to be a sign of weakness on their part but in reality it all comes down to how far has their own authority as a nonprofit leader been undermined and how much is it being disruptive to the performance of the team and organisation now.


1.              Deborah L. Rhode & Amanda K. Packel, Summer 2009. Ethics and Nonprofits, Standford Social Innovation Review. [https://ssir.org/articles/entry/ethics_and_nonprofits].

2.              M. Sandy Hershcovis, 2011. Incivility, social undermining, bullying . . .oh my! A call to reconcile constructs within workplace aggression research. Journal of Organisational Behavior, 32; 499–519.


The author would like to thank Dr. Henry Yeoh, Deputy President of the Malaysian Institute of Human Resource Management (MIHRM) and Dr. Lee Vee Meng (Executive Director, Accenture) for reviewing this article and sharing very deft insights.


Dr. Sudeep Mohandas is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of I First International, a nonprofit management consultancy. He can be reached at sudeep@ifirstinternational.com