Friday, July 29, 2011

What Does the Perfect Association Leader Look Like?

(Originally posted on SmartBlog on Leadership)

Think for a moment about the qualities a perfect leader would have…

If you are like most people you had a series of adjectives pop into your head.   Maybe you pictured a person who is a fearless, visionary, innovatively independent thinker.  Or maybe someone who is a careful, detail oriented, focused consensus builder.   On top of that, the definition of the perfect leader probably changes based on circumstances.  Depending on the context, maybe your idea of the perfect leader is a Patton, and in others, a Gandhi.

When you consider the range of talents a “perfect leader” might need to have, it is unreasonable to expect any one individual to embody every leadership quality needed to succeed in today’s environment.  Complex environments require complex sets of skills.  Rarely, if ever, can we find all of the talents we need in any one individual.   What does that mean for leadership in our associations and not-for-profit corporations?  How can we adapt to this new environment?

What if we flip our thinking and stop waiting for the “one great leader who can do it all” and instead develop processes to identify and combine the best talents in our groups? We know some situations call for someone with a light touch, and others call for a more forceful approach. What if we could have both at our disposal when we needed them?

Not-for-profit associations are poised to create collaborative leadership structures that harness the power of the group and move away from the “cult of the individual.” I suggest that association leaders focus on identifying and utilizing the leadership qualities that already exist within their volunteer and staff base. This would give us a unique ability to deploy a broad range of leadership qualities and skills on critical issues affecting our associations, member-citizens and their industries and professions.

Here are five things to keep in mind when creating collaborative leadership structures in associations and nonprofits.

  • Acknowledge the environment.  Accept that complex environments require more sophisticated leadership structures than the traditional hierarchical models of the past century.
  • Start simply.Make small shifts in language and terminology to support your new outlook on leadership.  Use new vocabulary to create new opportunities to think about leadership differently.
  • Use a strengths based approach.  Ask volunteers and staff about their strengths and concentrate on reinforcing and using those skills.  Link innovators with detail people, connect visionaries with tacticians, introduce social networkers to problem solvers, and so forth.
  • Define new expectations.  Setting clear policy regarding conflicts of interest and codes of conduct are vital to creating a strong leadership culture within your volunteer leadership base.
  • Develop appropriate training.  Leadership training must focus less on “definitions” and drawing on “examples of great leaders” and more on group processes that take advantage of the skills already in the room.  Interpersonal communications and collaborative processes are the keys to accelerating the development of a deep bench of strong volunteer and staff leaders.


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