The Secret to Better Leadership

duckleadershipI attended a session this week about leadership development in the association world. We talked about different leadership styles, and the need to adapt your style to fit the context, and then we talked about leadership development programs for volunteers. The conversation–particularly the second part about developing volunteer leaders–really got under my skin. So if you will permit me, I need to rant a bit about what I am hearing in the association community around the concept of developing leadership. Here’s some of what I heard (and my rant).

Train your volunteer leaders in generic leadership competencies like conflict management, emotional intelligence, and communication. You don’t have a lot of resources, so most of it will probably be via webinars.

Rant: Okay, there is nothing wrong with training your volunteers in those skills, but I did find it interesting that immediately after making it clear that we need to be adaptive and flexible in leadership, and be aware of the context, the next thing we do is train people in generic skills. Why aren’t we training our volunteers in the SPECIFIC skills that we know they need to be successful in driving the success of this particular organization?! And if leadership is so important, why do we have to skimp and make them do webinars? If we don’t have resources for it, that must mean that it’s not impacting our performance that much, right? This confusion about the value of leadership is not acceptable. It either has a big impact thus we invest in it, or it doesn’t. But I don’t see the point of doing it half way.

Several associations still had leadership “pipelines” that spanned five, ten, or fifteen years before you would be deemed “acceptable” to serve on the Board of Directors

Rant: Are you kidding me?! Do you think that the Millennial generation is going to wait that long to be on your Board of Directors? This generation can’t understand why it has to wait two years to get a new phone that has more computing power than a rocket ship, but you’re asking them to sit through four years of boring committee conference calls before they can even be considered for a slot on your board? They are not going to take you seriously if that’s the only offer you have for influencing the senior leadership of the organization. You don’t have to believe me, but I think it will come back to bite you if you allow the Millennials to stop taking you seriously.

It’s frustrating that we have to put on these awesome leadership programs for the volunteers, but the staff have no access to them. Some let staff watch the webinars, but won’t permit them participate or ask questions.

Rant: What is this crazy chasm that we have created between staff and volunteers? Why are we not allowed to talk to each other? Why are the volunteers considered to be leaders, but the staff are not? The association is a system, and that system has many parts (as does any system). The parts all have relationships, and they don’t all do the same things, and that’s all fine. But leadership is the system’s capacity to shape its future, so why the heck would you be offering skills training to one part of the system and DENY that training to another part that happens to be sitting in the same room. This is insanity. (And see above rant about not investing in leadership.)

What do you do about volunteers who are horrible leaders, but won’t step off the committee?

Rant: Fortunately one association staffer there had a good answer to this: she fires them. Yes, the staff fires the committee members if they are not performing. She definitely informs the committee leadership so they know what’s going on, but she doesn’t ask their permission. This particular association was very clear on what is needed for the committee to work, and they made those standards explicit and enforced them. Imagine that!? Why is this so hard? What world do our members live in that they wouldn’t expect to be held accountable to standards? But I still hear staff cowering and doing end runs around the volunteers because it’s “their” association. They may be the owners, but leadership is about enabling power and getting results. If the owners are messing with that, then the system needs to deal with it. Oh, and the other common solution: term limits. Sigh. Great, you’ve got people that are reducing your system’s capacity to get things done, and your best answer is “yeah, but they can only do that for three years and then they’re gone.” Unacceptable.

Some claimed that they had the “good” problem of having too many people that wanted to be involved in the association compared to the available slots to participate on boards and committees.

Rant: This is not a GOOD problem, people. It’s just a problem. And a glaring one. And one that you have absolutely no excuse for not solving, other than the completely lame excuse of telling people that you are not willing to change your existing processes to meet the needs of your community. The solution is not to “clarify” their expectations and tell them that they have to wait 15 years to be on the board. The solution is not to create more committees and subcommittees to invent slots for these people to fill (yay, another series of meaningless conference calls!). The solution is to clarify the kinds of activities that will drive the success of the enterprise and create the systems and processes that facilitate that activity. This requires experimentation and quick learning. So get at it.

Okay, rant over. But it does lead me to the title of this post: the secret to better leadership. The secret is simple, but not easy:


If you want better leadership, then you need to do the hard work of getting clear on what drives success in your enterprise. Clear on what skills matter more than others. Clear on who does what and why. Clear on the principles that matter, more than the details of the specific processes that you prefer. Clear on what is truly valued inside your organization and why. Clear on what engagement means and why it matters.

When I hear conversations like the one this week, I marvel at how we expect to be successful without doing the hard work of clarity. Where we accept our current systems, processes, structures, and assumptions as the default, and focus only on which details we need to choose. If you want better leadership, then you need to build the capacity of your system (not just the Board or department heads). That means you have to deeply know your system, and its culture, and its context. The longer you wait to do that, the harder it will be to stay current.