Five Things I Learned About Leadership In 2013

Supporting diversity, stoking innovation, and building partnerships were all essential parts of the CEO's toolkit in 2013.

This was the first full year I wrote (pretty much) weekly on leadership for AssociationsNow.com. I talked to a lot of association CEOs, looked at a lot of studies, and absorbed a lot of earnest metaphors about what leadership is like. (It’s like sailing a ship! It’s like flying a plane! It’s like being an astronaut!)

I learned a lot, not all of it easily reducible to the kind of list of tips that are popular around the end of the year. But much of what I wrote about did circle around some common themes. I think these subjects will help set the table for what CEOs and board leaders alike will need to focus on in 2014.

Associations still need to be mindful about who’s in their leadership roles, and what prejudices keep some people in and shut others out.

1. Thinking about diversity is more essential and more complicated than we tend to think. Associations have been slow cultivate diverse boards—more than a third don’t have board members of ethnic or other minority groups, according to ASAE research. And the glass ceiling remains very much in place: Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg stoked a conversation this year about how women are denied leadership roles (and deny themselves the initiative to pursue them) in her bestselling book, Lean In. Sandberg’s book has its critics, but one point it highlighted is that just being in the room is  not enough; after all, research suggests that women and minorities often are put in leadership positions during rough patches, and aren’t given much support once they’re there. Associations still need to be mindful about who’s in their leadership roles, and what prejudices keep some people in and shut others out.

2. The best leaders leave their egos at the door. Being in a leadership role has always meant dealing with criticism, but the outlets for criticism are rapidly proliferating; now a CEO can deliver a keynote speech at an annual meeting and (should she dare) watch members tweet their displeasure with every new initiative she announces in real-time. Absorbing every single complaint is unhealthy (and frankly unhelpful), but so is surrounding yourself with yeasayers. And it’s only through a frank discussion of failures that you can come up with the ideas that will help you become successful.

3. Partnerships matter, perhaps more than ever. One of the more entertaining and surprising interviews I conducted this year was with the co-CEOs of the American Gastroenterological Association, who not only avoid power struggles (see point number 2, above) but argue that the complexity of association work today may make such partnerships more essential. I saw a similar dynamic at play when I wrote about a coalition of Montana education associations that set aside their differences to successfully promote new state legislation. Who can you work with, internally or externally, to improve your association? It’s a question that I suspect will pick up more urgency in 2014.

4. Innovation doesn’t have to be paradigm-shattering event. The public face of innovation has always been whiz-bang stuff: The moon shot, the website, the smartphone. For leaders who are charged to “innovate,” this can be as paralyzing as it is inspirational, and keep them from making the small but meaningful tweaks that can lead to transformative changes. The ASAE Foundation Innovation Grant recipients I wrote about earlier this year weren’t doing jawdropping things on the face of it: an online tool, some videos, a staff competition. But all helped those organizations rethink their missions in meaningful ways.

5. Compassion counts. When the Boston Marathon bombing earlier this year interrupted the board meeting of the New England Law Library Consortium, its CEO’s first instinct was to press forward. Wisely, though, she took a step back. There are moments when setting the agenda and being decisive isn’t as essential as taking the temperature of the room, particularly when it comes to boards. “There has to be some type of return on engagement for people who invest their time, their talent, their energies for the betterment of the profession,” Larry Robertson, CAE, senior director of human capital and innovation at the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy, told me earlier this year. I heard that sentiment expressed often by CEOs in 2013—that playing the role of decisionmaker and most emotionally intelligent person in the room was one of the gig’s biggest challenges.

And you? What were some of your biggest leadership lessons from 2013? And just as important, what will you do to make them a part of your work in 2014?


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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