Friday, September 17, 2010

The Waning Days of Leadership in Association Management

Promising compromise
Championing mediocrity
Time and time again
What you said ain't what you mean
Even if all my bones are broken
I will drag myself back from the edge to

Kill the King
The King is dead
Long live the King
I am the King
(God save the King)....Megadeth

The Short of It

The days of leadership are waning
Those of us practiced in the art
Need some new skills
The debate about "servant leadership"
or "innovative leadership"
or "visionary leadership"
Are red herrings
The days of facilitation are here

The Long of It

I am so over leadership.

Dramatic? I'll give you that. Let the patronizing begin. But one more blog post about the nature of leadership and I'm going to hurl.

After investing most of my association career studying and practicing leadership skills both as an individual and as part of different organizations either as executive, staff or a volunteer, I am beginning to ponder whether "leadership" principles are universally applicable anymore. Is the gold standard of "practicing leadership" still relevant?

There seems to be a pervasive cultural narrative these days about failed leadership. Is the problem with "failed leadership" at every level (public, private, local, state and federal) the result of poor execution on the part of the practioners or are the methods themselves losing traction? Is the assumption that "leadership" concepts are universally applicable failing us as a profession and as a broader society?

I am having trouble believing that after the thousands and thousands of books, lectures and workshops on "leadership development at every level," that we are cursed with either thousands of people in positions of power who are uninformed, or worse, inept. Something in me refuses to believe we just don't know any better, or that we just all suck.  Some other force is at work.

As the operating environment becomes more sophisticated and complex, and the problems more wicked, can we really expect that even exemplary leadership skills will be sufficient?

Consider for just a moment whether the reason we struggle with leadership isn't because we don't know "how" to practice it but the structures no longer tolerate it.  We have evolved from command and control, to more collaborative and democratic styles.  Now we need to take it one step farther.

Think of a time when accusations regarding perceived leadership "vacuums" in your association were bandied about.  What did that even mean and what were the supposed signs?  Arguing? Power struggles? Confusion? Low morale?  Then tell me who got blamed. The executive? The volunteer leaders? The chapters? The staff? Is it truly a failure of any one of those individuals? Or did the system itself conspire with outside circumstances to leave your association adrift?

When the cry "we just need leadership" goes up, I am going to hazard a guess that what is broken is probably not the leaders themselves. It is the fact that they are practicing "leadership" in an old school way and actively preventing large scale innovation in favor of smaller, more incremental change. In some cases, when forward progress is being killed, it's someone exercising "leadership" skills who is killing it.

It is rare that an association that is relentlessly focused on achieving real milestones to see their members grousing about lack of leadership.  It's only when things stagnate or get off track that members start blaming and seeking scapegoats.

When things are happening in an association they are happening because certain individuals or groups within the system are actively working on positive change and progress on both the micro and macro level. The "leaders" aren't the ones with the titles, they are ones that are getting things done. Change can come from any level - executive, staff or volunteer. And no matter WHAT your title, or where you fit on the food chain, if you are facilitating change you are the de facto leaders in the association. Period.

If you are going to survive in this new environment you must shift your skill set from "exercising leadership" to identifying opportunities to "facilitate change" wherever it is occuring in your association.

Facilitators are actively working with those change focused elements within the organization, removing obstacles and providing up to date, accurate information. Given the right choices, environments and resources individuals and groups, even those on the bleeding edge of innovation or advocating radical changes, don't usually make suicidal decisions.

Leadership skills are necessary and even fun to study and practice. But if we don't make the shift to seeing our roles as executives, staff and volunteers from "leaders" to "facilitators" - moving obstacles and creating important changes all the "leadership" talk in the world won't help us solve the problems we face.

Are you serving the present? Creating the future? If you aren't facilitating all the time, in all situations, neither of those questions matter anymore.

Yeah, promising compromise, championing mediocrity.  The boys growl their way through this one but there is something to be said for an uncompromising look at command and control.  Here is the link for those of you who can't see the video if you want.


  1. Great post. In a similar vein, why do boards have so much difficulty being effective boards? There must be something wrong with the basic structure of both boards and associations. I think there are commonalities in these questions.

    What do others think?

  2. This is phenomenal! Just as you pointed out, we're using the same tactics to solve new and different problems. Bottom line, we're afraid of change because it's unfamiliar. However, I'm hopeful that as a community, we can respond to complex issues by getting creative and not being afraid of risk.

  3. @Leslie and @step73 -

    Thanks so much for the comments. We need to continue to actively explore the governance structure issues you mentioned. I believe there is room for improvement and we these are critical conversations.

    Also, new tactics are called for. I believe in the capacity of our fellow association professionals and believe a new day is about to finally dawn.


  4. Hey maybe this is the problem with all the chapter leadership conferences? We are focusing on those with the title telling them how to keep the title. What if we focused on members who could be "leaders" and coached them on being facilitators ... hmmm ... enjoyed the post - thanks!

  5. It seems that many of our "leaders" spend so much time writing and talking about leading that they become so far out of touch with their constituents. Any suggestions for staff who know that changes need to be made, but know that the decision makers are unable to make the change?

  6. @Peggy and @Jami -

    Great comments. Peggy - Yes, we spend a lot of time telling them how to keep their titles, but not a lot of time telling them on how to get work done.

    Jami - you are in a tough spot with leaders who cannot make the shift. The best thing you can do is model the right behaviors, show results and when asked about your success talk about the different approach you take. The second best thing you can do is, (if presented with an opportunity to do so and I know that's a big IF), suggest bringing in an outside facilitator who can talk about the new association workplace environment.

    The third best thing is bide your time and seek out an environment where you can join with others who think like you do and produce a fantastic work environment.

    Thanks for stopping by and reading....



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