A Last Look at Leadership in 2019

Strategic thinking, bold moves, the end of narcissism, and a few other takeaways from a busy year.

Congratulations! If your association is in any way a reflection of larger economic trends, you probably had a pretty good year as a leader. The economy is generally doing well, so most organizations have been able to avoid belt-tightening with staff. There are heartening reports that associations have increasingly embraced strategic thinking. And if the old association model is becoming unsettled, there are also more ways than ever to connect and engage with members and stakeholders.

But, as ever, there’s still work to be done. Much of what I wrote about in 2019 for this blog revolved around the challenges and opportunities created by these upsides. Leaders may not be able to address every problem they face. But take a look at some of the themes that emerged for me, and see if there aren’t ideas for what your next move as a leader might be.

One of the weakest areas of leadership in every organization is the ability to define success with precision.

Staffers are looking for more reasons to engage. Association staffers do their best work when they feel successful—but they need leaders to clearly articulate what success looks like. “One of the weakest areas of leadership in every organization—and this is across industries, not just associations—is the ability to define success with precision,” consultant and author Jamie Notter told me in February. For some staffers, simply promoting them may not be enough, and it might be the wrong answer entirely. But you won’t go wrong by being as transparent as possible with staff about where your association is and how you’re meeting your goals. It’s impossible to overcommunicate, many CEOs say, especially when it comes to more disruptive changes.

Boards need to be pushed out of their comfort zones. The CEO doesn’t run an association’s board; indeed, it’s typically the board that conducts the CEO’s performance review. But CEOs are uniquely positioned to champion new ideas before the board, and it’s a role they should embrace. One of my favorite association stories of 2019 was the American Astronomical Society stepping up in a hurry to purchase Sky & Telescope magazine, a foundering publication that found new life through AAS. Making the move, with some expensive upfront costs, required some selling on the CEO’s part, but that effort was ultimately worth it.

Strategy is still a challenge. Many associations have dispensed with their outdated “leadership ladders,” where even eager volunteers find themselves waiting the better part of a decade to attain a board seat. But speeding the process has meant that more board members need better education about strategy, and CEOs can lead that education. And while more association execs and staffers are engaged in strategic planning, boards still need some help when it comes to strategic thinking.

Top-down leadership is out of style, if not antiquated. As New Power authors and ASAE Annual Meeting & Exposition speakers Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans pointed out, the command-and-control model associations have used with members needs to give way to more inclusive, flexible, and collaborative relationships. That may have an impact on what leadership style is most effective with your stakeholders. Hard-charging extroverts and narcissists may need to take a lesson from servant leaders: Be the leader who doesn’t wield power so much as empowers others.

The needle still isn’t moving much on diversity. A report earlier this year found that while a solid majority of nonprofits say their boards should be more diverse, only about half have taken any real action to increase diversity. That “real action” will rely on a change in mindset: As one executive pointed out in Deloitte report on the lack of women board leaders, “without strong, proactive leadership from the board chair and nominating committee, some boards will continue to bring in people like themselves.” With D+I at the bottom of the list of priorities at associations, according to one recent report, it’s a conversation that still requires urgent attention.

Thanks for reading, and see you in 2020.

(DedMityay/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

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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