Three Mindsets Every Leader Needs

A pair of leadership experts say the best executives should understand business, politics, and nonprofits simultaneously. Do association CEOs already fit the bill?

It’s time to stop this talk about how associations need to “run more like a business.” Associations need to run more like a government.

I know, I know—I can hear you laughing all the way over here. Thanks to a recent Congress that’s seemingly equated forward movement with an ebola-like virus to be avoided at all costs, politics can seem like a poor model for effective leadership.

Tri-sector leaders convene diverse groups to address and resolve knotty issues.

In the long run, though, politics is the art of effective partnership and compromise, and a recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that it’s an essential (and underused) part of the leadership toolkit.

In “Triple-Strength Leadership” [paywalled], Nick Lovegrove and Matthew Thomas promote the virtues of “tri-sector leaders”—executives who make a point of cultivating experience in the corporate, political, and nonprofit arenas. Each arena allows a leader to exercise distinct but important muscles. “Business executives excel at allocating scarce resources to capture attractive market opportunities,” they write. “Government officials bring competing interests together to create legal and policy frameworks for the benefit of the public. Nonprofit leaders typically focus their more limited resources, longer time horizons, and greater operating freedom on devising creative ways to further the social good.”

This sort of shuttling among responsibilities isn’t just an abstraction: Think of CEO-turned-university board chair-turned-mayor Michael ¬†Bloomberg, or Treasury Department staffer-turned-Facebook COO-turned-Lean In Foundation honcho Sheryl Sandberg. But ultimately the effectiveness of this approach is not so much about an individual leader’s career path as it is the mindset a leader cultivates. Tri-sector leaders know which leadership style is best in a particular situation and create networks that allow them to implement change effectively. Such leaders, Lovegrove and Thomas write, “depend on their integrated networks to build leadership teams and to convene the diverse groups that can address and resolve knotty tri-sector issues.”

On the surface, association leaders may seem to fall short when it comes to tri-sector leadership. My colleague Joe Rominiecki pointed to some recent ASAE research showing that more than a third of association CEOs came up through the association community, and more than half were trained in the industry their association serves.  More targeted research would be necessary to suss out how much time association CEOs have invested in business and political contexts.

But I’m inclined to think that an association is a good place to become the kind of tri-sector leader that Lovegrove and Thomas advocate for. Trade associations with busy advocacy departments already understand the value of a political mindset. And associations that are on the lookout for smart nondues revenue ideas (which is to say, pretty much all of them) are doing whatever they can to think like a business.

The authors are somewhat vague on what it takes to develop strong tri-sector leaders. But what they suggest echoes the kind of strategic bouncing around that the CEO of a robust association already does. “We need to take a life-cycle approach,” they write. “To create programs that will give them an intellectual foundation at the start and practical pathways that will allow them to move from sector to sector throughout their careers without slowing their forward momentum.” For some association execs, that work may be as easy as visits with different departments.

Is association leadership an effective laboratory for tri-sector leadership? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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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