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Spotlight on Association Leadership: What does the perfect leader look like?

3 min read


This guest post is by Shelly Alcorn, CAE, an association-management consultant. Reach her on Twitter @shellyalcorn, on LinkedIn or at the Association Subculture Blog.

Think for a moment about the qualities a perfect leader. A series of adjectives pop into your head. Maybe you picture a person who is a fearless, visionary, innovative, independent thinker. Or maybe you see 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, it is unreasonable to expect one individual to embody every leadership quality needed to succeed in today’s environment. Complex environments require a complex set of skills. Rarely, if ever, can we find all talents needed in one individual. What does that mean for leadership in our associations and not-for-profit corporations? How can we adapt to this 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?

Not-for-profit associations are poised to create a collaborative leadership structure that harnesses the power of the group and move away from the “cult of the individual.” I suggest that association leaders focus on identifying and using leadership qualities that already exist within their volunteer and staff base. We could then deploy a broad range of leadership qualities and skills on critical issues affecting our associations and member citizens as well as their industries and professions.

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

  • Acknowledge the environment. Accept that complex environments require a more sophisticated leadership structure than the traditional hierarchical model of the past century.
  • Start simply. Make small shifts in language and terminology to support your outlook on leadership. Use different vocabulary to create 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 detailed people, connect visionaries with tacticians and introduce social networkers to problem solvers.
  • Define 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 skills already in the room. Interpersonal communications and collaborative processes are key to accelerating the development of a deep bench of strong volunteer and staff leaders.

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