Manage, Don’t Lead! Lead, Don’t Manage!

Are association execs getting mixed signals about what qualifies as great leadership?

“I just fell into it.”

The phrase ‘I just fell into it’ made me think that ‘it’ is a sticky mud pit you’d do well to pull yourself out of.

You’ve heard that line. You may have said it yourself. Heck, you may even have said it directly to me at some point, if I’ve asked you how you came to be an association executive. It’s one of the folkways of the industry that taking the reins of an organization is a kind of  happy accident. Skills and talent and training mattered, of course, but the path to leadership in associations is rarely direct, and hardly ever involved any explicit schooling in nonprofitdom. (The redesigned Associations Now has a feature, “How I Got Here,” that was partly conceived to pay tribute to this fact.)

The downside of just falling into it, though, is that many executives (or would-be executives) enter the job facing three questions that they may not be fully equipped to answer:

  1. What are your skills as a leader?
  2. What are your skills as a manager?
  3. Do you recognize the difference?

I have this on my mind having read two blog posts by nonprofit consultants that appeared cheek by jowl in my Twitter feed. The first, by Amy Stephan, criticized executives for being small-ball managers: “A lack of leadership in nonprofit organizations is a key factor of underperformance and failure,” she writes. “It creates a weak staff, poor donor development, and an environment based on the ideas and processes of just one person – the manager.” The second, by Curtis Chang at the Stanford Social Innovation Review, dinged execs for focusing so much on big-picture strategy that they neglected the essential work of hiring, firing, and staff development.

Chang’s post is particularly interesting in that it’s framed as a “five-minute MBA” article—the assumption being that the average nonprofit leader’s arsenal of knowledge is so bare that to present the basic skills is in no way condescending.

So: Is it condescending? Reading these two articles, the phrase “I just fell into it” made me think that “it” is a sticky mud pit you’d do well to pull yourself out of. But if you’re in that position, how quickly did you recognize the dual responsibilities of leadership and management, and how do you integrate them both into your everyday work?

(photo by Alex Goldmark/Flickr)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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