To master leadership strategies, a leader must hold several beliefs firmly in mind. The first is that leadership strategies are in fact, learnable. Which is to say, that the experiences of those who have gone before, can be translated into meaningful and relevant lessons for each of us who follows. The second is that there is an important and pertinent reason for doing so. Said differently, learning leadership strategies will make a difference in the world for someone—either you, other leaders, or followers. Finally a third—albeit unspoken belief— is that as a leader, you truly believe you are capable of being both servant leader and learner, while making a meaningful contribution to the challenges and opportunities at hand.
Why Lead At All?
Leadership in our society has come to mean different things to many people. For some, leaders are those who do the right things, whatever they may be, rather than doing things right, which has come to be viewed as the preeminent domain of managers. For others, leaders are those capable of choosing, doing, and reveling in things right, no matter the source of inspiration. Leadership is a work in progress, often situational, and rarely based in certainty of deed or action. A leader calls out, “I will go, follow me!” A leader initiates, provides the ideas and structure, while accepting the risk of failure and the chance of success. More often than not, leaders are simply better at pointing a direction and inspiring those around them to follow in pursuit of a goal. Leadership is in so many respects in the eye of the beholder or followers.
So why be a leader at all? Robert Greenleaf in his book Servant Leadership says simply it is a matter of extremes. There are some—constituted physically and emotionally to thrive under the intensity and pressure of leadership—and those who neither enjoy nor seek the pressures but are willing to endure it for the opportunity to lead. In short, we lead because of who we are and what we believe. What we believe about leadership is another matter all together.
“We are in one of those great historical period that occur every 200 to 300 years when people don’t understand the world anymore, and the past is not sufficient to explain the future. We are entering a post-capitalist era in which organizations will have to innovate quickly and be global.” – Dr. Peter Drucker –
The Environment In Which We Lead
We are in the midst of a “C” change. Competition. Communications. Community. If the 70’s were the age of disillusionment and the 80’s brought about the revitalization of capitalism and demand for democracy, what did the 90’s hold for leaders on the brink of the 21st century? A quick scan of our environment reveals much about our world, society and the changing roles and responsibilities of a leader.
We must recognize that innovation and creativity rather than controls, order and predictability, are the key dynamics needed to achieve market leadership and profitability. The increasing difficulty for most leaders is the ability to manage today’s challenges while looking ahead for new opportunities, products and markets. Today’s association operates in an environment of rapid external change, growing demands for excellence in service, quality and products, political and regulatory oversight, and increasing diversity of interests among its membership.
Glenn Tecker and Marybeth Fidler in Successful Association Leadership, Dimensions of 21st-Century Competency for the CEO identified five interrelated trends that will affect the competencies of association executives; (a) a change in the nature of change itself; (b) increased demand for outcome accountability; (c) less time from talented volunteers; (d) technology’s promise, possibilities, expectations, and realities; and generational and multicultural demographics.
It’s worth taking a closer look. These trends reveal a pathway to new and exciting opportunities for leaders and organizations. They call individually and collectively for a yeasty response—both personal and professional in nature. In these times and this environment, leaders need to step way outside the box in their thinking and actions if they are to maintain relevancy and meaning for their associations.
“The most important quality that a 21st Century leader needs is the ability to inspire other people, first to pull together in the direction of the vision, and second to do their very best in producing excellent results.” – Kathy Keeton –
We are all pioneers. To call oneself a leader, is to acknowledge your own vulnerability to the unknown. While theories and styles of leadership abound, two authors, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner sum up five key practices of exemplary leaders in their book, The Leadership Challenge.
Challenging the Process – As leader’s we are obligated to explore, experiment, and improve the way our organizations operate. Innovation and creativity is key. Leaders must learn to treat mistakes as learning experiences, and as preparation tools for meeting new challenges. Challenging the process entails searching for opportunities and experimenting and taking risks.
Inspiring A Shared Vision – Leader’s look toward and beyond the horizon. As practitioner’s, we must envision the future with optimism. Our success derives in large measure from our expressive and constant communication of our ideas, values and beliefs. Key in our abilities is showing others how our mutual interests will be met through a commitment to a common purpose. Inspiring a shared vision involves envisioning the future and enlisting the support of others.
Enabling Others To Act – Leader’s infuse people with spirit based on mutual trust. They stress collaborative goals. They actively involve others in planning, giving them discretion to make their own decisions. Leaders ensure people feel strong and capable. Enabling others to act involves fostering collaboration and strengthening others.
Modeling The Way – As a leader you must be clear about your business values and beliefs. Leaders keep people and projects on course by behaving consistently with these values and modeling how they expect others to act. Leaders also plan and break projects down into achievable steps, creating opportunities for small wins. They make it easier for others to achieve goals by focusing on key priorities. Modeling the way involves setting an example and planning small wins.
Encouraging The Heart – Leader’s encourage people to persist in their efforts by linking recognition with accomplishments, visibly recognizing contributions to the common vision. They let others know that their efforts are appreciated and express pride in the team’s accomplishments. They nurture a team spirit, which enables people to sustain continued efforts. Encouraging the heart involves recognizing contributions and celebrating accomplishment.
“Association leaders who will thrive and not just survive in the 21st Century will be those who successfully manage both relationships and information.” – Don L. Riggins –
The Distinctive Skills of Association Leaders
Perception is reality. People make judgments, decisions and form opinions based primarily on what they perceive to be the case. Sometimes these perceptions will not be based in fact. They may be founded on inaccurate, out-of-date, irrelevant information. It doesn’t matter. What is perceived is!
To say that an association leader’s fortunes solely rise or fall in tandem with the winds of perception would be a gross oversimplification of the myriad dynamics that define our professional existence and distinctive skills. The association leaders place in the world is however being defined more and more by the level of skills they bring to the sophisticated tasks of interpersonal communication, complex relationships, acquisition of information, technological savvy, and resource deployment. Flexibility, resiliency, and fluidity are the drivers in the 21st century.
Association CEO’s face a level of uncertainty and challenge unknown in many respects by their predecessors. The extraordinary level of change in the world and the resulting chaos in some industry sectors has created pressures from volunteer leaders, members, and other association stakeholders for fast, high-quality, and ready solutions. Our unpredictable future is creating extraordinary levels of anxiety. In the absence of explicit consensus about what constitutes your association’s success, an opportunity exists to place the association leader at risk. Less than full and complete confidence and trust in your leadership style or an internal/external environment that promotes less than full satisfaction with your efforts only adds to the risk factors.
So then, is it the primary job of the association leader to manage the perceptions of their boards, members, volunteers, and stakeholders? The simple answer is, it depends. In most cases one cannot commit themselves to the full time adventure of gathering, interpreting, and countering or addressing the perceptions of key influencers’ both inside and outside of the association. Yet it remains a key component of the leader’s job. There are some others as well:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then,
is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle –
Sharpening The Leadership Saw
No one excels without the benefit of experience. How does one get experience? By making mistakes, of course. So you have…yes, I have a lot of experience. It has been written that all we are is the sum of our experiences. Perhaps this is so. Just as likely though, we are also captive to our habits—positive and negative. The late Dr. Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People builds a compelling case for the beneficial application of habits by describing a series of actions and behaviors one can apply in all avenues of our lives. The habits described by Covey are:
- Be Proactive
- Begin with the End in Mind
- Put First Things First
- Think Win/Win
- Seek First To Understand, Then to Be Understood
- Sharpen The Saw
While all of the seven habits bring powerful change and mastery to leaders, the matter of sharpening the leadership saw is our focus. Dr. Covey presents a forceful argument for assuring our own professional success through the renewal of our physical, spiritual, mental, and social/emotional assets. To be sure, our well being is key to our success as leaders. Given the rapid pace and ever changing environment in which we serve, we must also continuously broaden our horizons, emotionally and intellectually if we are to be successful. How? By looking across the spectrum of information resources and business/social opportunities available to you. Serving as a volunteer leader can build great empathy for the challenges facing those with you whom you partner in the leadership of the association. Having an active reading list is key to spotting opportunities and having the much needed time to reflect on possible alternatives to your circumstances and challenges facing your organization.
“If we don’t reinforce a sense of responsibility at the same time we build a culture of empowerment, we are headed to social chaos.” – Rita Ricardo-Campbell –
Empowering Those Around You
Empowerment is not abdication. To the contrary, empowerment is a rich, dynamic tapestry of power-sharing from which leaders can build on and benefit from the strengths of those around them. Empowerment creates a strong sense of mutual responsibility for successful outcomes. Empowerment increases participation and involvement, shared knowledge, decision-making and encourages everyone to contribute to their fullest. Don’t mistake empowerment as a tool for creating workplace democracy or as a tool for consensus building. Empowerment encourages and values ideas and contributions from everyone, but requires strong leaders to facilitate decision-making, reach closure and create alignment among team members. Empowering those around you is not a task for the weak of heart. There are some guidelines for success:
Empowerment starts at the top – It is often said “bottlenecks are usually near the top”. When it comes to empowerment, it becomes a virtual truism. Leaders must model the behaviors of openness, candor, and encouragement if empowerment is to develop and grow within the organization.
Empowerment is a state of mind – As an association leader you must forego the boss-dominated, hierarchical, organizational model. You must maximize your respect for individuals and their ideas. To make breakthroughs in empowerment, you must first make breakthroughs in your personal beliefs about power and control.
Empowerment supports distributed leadership – Empowerment replaces the boss-dominated, “observer-critic” syndrome with the perspective of all team members as leaders in the process of change. The essence of empowerment resides in the minds of leaders who willingly share and encourage leadership, innovation, and creativity throughout the association.
Empowerment and accountability go hand in hand – It has been said that the price of freedom is that we are accountable for our choices. The price of empowerment is personal accountability. Can your organization support a culture that disallows blaming others, and making excuses, and promotes a focus on results and making things happen?
Respect and trust are cornerstones of empowerment – Association leaders must instill genuine respect and trust in the culture of their organizations. People will more willingly accept the notion of empowerment and accountability when there is genuine trust and respect woven into the fabric of the association. David Kelley of IDEO sums it up nicely, “reward success and failure equally. Punish inactivity.”
Sharing power is also sharing risk – Contrary to popular belief most people are not risk averse. Given the opportunity, training, and support, they will often opt for the tougher road and higher stakes, knowing full well that risks are an inherent part of leadership.
Build an organization that supports front-line decision-making – When front-line staff are empowered to make decisions, they will make better decisions while still maintaining accountability for their actions. Distributed information is key to supporting front-line action. The old-line hierarchical information base of “need to know” only serves to impede excellence in membership service and limit growth opportunities for your staff.
“Everyone’s dignity is raised by having a say in where the enterprise is going. Empowerment is really about involvement. Empowerment starts with truly believing everyone counts.”
– Jack Welch –
Why Volunteer Leaders Can’t Always Lead
There is a growing sense that traditional governance models severely inhibit the ability of volunteers to be effective association leaders. This is not a matter of picking poorly in our choice of volunteers. It is forthright recognition that discontinuous change creates a swiftly changing field of play in which opportunities and problems must be dealt with more rapidly than ever before. The environment in which traditional governance has served us is gone. Traditional governance approaches will tend to inhibit the ability to serve members, and not create opportunities to be responsive to them. As association leaders we need to look at the origins of change and the way change manifests itself today.
In the recent past, change and its effects were predictable phenomena. By watching the industry or profession of our membership, one could draw reasonable inferences and develop a plan measured in part against expected growth patterns and emerging trends. Said differently, we could foresee the direction and likely outcomes of a particular trend. Then along came Moore’s law. Technological developments have forever altered the landscape in which associations operate. World events change the plan of work for association leaders everywhere. What once took months or weeks is now handled routinely in minutes or seconds. Mass communication with members, association volunteer leaders, and other stakeholders can occur in real-time, worldwide, with all manner of visual, audio, and electronic documentation.
How can we as association leaders rise to the occasion? By recognizing that there are and must be new roles for new times. Many associations have already undertaken changes. In 2015 the Alzheimer’s Association opted for an aggressive reorganization to better align the organization and provide the right tools, resources, and support consistently and effectively across the organization. A few years back, The Association for Information and Image Management underwent significant re-engineering efforts resulting in a clearer, more focused strategic direction. Xplor International downsized its Board of Directors to eight people. The American Paper and Forest Products Association trimmed its budget by $10 million, reduced dues, eliminated its Executive Committee, and moved to flatten its hierarchical structure.
Change for change sake is meaningless and demoralizing. Change supported by vision, confidence, and leadership can be invigorating and exciting for everyone. As author Simon Sinek reminds us, “Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” What are you doing to foster the growth of leadership and essential change within your association?