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After months of mediation, performance improvement plans, recalibration, blood, sweat and tears, the (seemingly) inevitable has occurred: your nonprofit organization’s toxic leader has resigned. Like something akin to a divorce, there are combined feelings of relief, abandonment, disappointment and uncertainty, and that’s just among the board of directors. But once the dust has settled, PTED –– Post-Traumatic Executive Disorder –– can set in, and it can ruin an organization.

The unplanned departure of an executive is a major trauma for an organization to endure, and it’s an experience that can make or break a nonprofit depending on how it’s handled. The natural inclination of a board is to refill the role as quickly as possible in hopes of getting things “back on track,” but, what does it really mean to be on the right track? You can reasonably assume that many things were broken along the road to your executive’s resignation, and fixing those things is the best place to start –– before refilling the role.

A toxic leader wreaks havoc on every aspect of an organization, not least of which is the morale of your staff. Sitting at the head of an organization gives a leader a remarkable amount of influence, and a bad leader can negatively impact aspects of an organization that can often be taken for granted, like the most basic-level day-to-day operations. After the departure of a toxic leader, an entire organization must go through a healing process, and it’s up to the board to do the appropriate research to tailor that process to meet the organization’s needs.

It’s important for a board of directors to immediately engage staff in conversations about what the changes mean for the organization as a whole and each of them individually. There’s nothing like the departure of an organization’s chief executive to make staff consider their own corporate mortality. Surveying the staff will provide answers to questions that are essential for realigning the culture and mission of the organization.  

At the outset, the board must determine the staff’s tolerance for more change. A staff that is “change-fatigued” will require time to heal before a new executive is introduced. In such cases, the board should look internally for potential leaders within the organization or on the board that can step in on an interim basis to settle the waters. A familiar face who is focused on the internal well-being of the organization can provide the energy a nonprofit needs during this transition period.

However, in other, more positive cases, organizations that have previously experienced strong leadership might do well to immediately replace a departed leader. Good leadership has the same “trickle down” effect as toxic leadership, and staff in this situation might begin to feel disconnected from the mission and their work without the effective leadership they’re accustomed to in place. But understanding this fact does not give license to an impulsive hire. If a good permanent hire cannot be made immediately, the board should consider interim executive leadership as an option while an executive search is underway.  

Stabilizing the culture of the organization is essential to the next leader’s success. When the chief executive position is vacant, the responsibility of setting organizational culture falls to the board. It’s up to the board to ensure that staff is connected to the mission, and the organization’s core values align with that mission as well. Without proper planning and careful execution of an emergency succession plan, the future of an organization is uncertain, and nothing kills a mission faster than PTED.

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