Key Leadership Lessons from #ASAE22

Beyond offering tips for improving strategies and tactics, or tweaking policies and processes, speakers at the 2022 ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo championed transparency as a crucial asset.

Acknowledge the struggle.

Of all the messages that emerged from the ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Nashville last week, that seemed to be the most common one. That was certainly the message from the main keynote speakers: entrepreneur Safi Bahcall, who explained how failures have helped corporations develop flexibility; venture capitalist Marcus Whitney, who put a spotlight on systemic racism in healthcare to spark change within the industry; and transgender singer-songwriter Cidny Bullens, who reached a breakthrough by facing his grief and discomfort in his own body.

Speakers like that, great as they are, can give the impression that struggle demands requires big, dramatic moments and changes where billions of dollars are at stake. But throughout #ASAE22, there were also examples of modest but effective ways that leaders can face challenges and disrupt their habits. 

At his talk “Leadership Echo Chambers,” Ryan MacTaggart, associate director, professional learning, at EDUCAUSE, spoke about the small shifts leaders can make to break out of their mental ruts: Being mindful of hiring for the new ideas people can bring, not their capacity for parroting your favorite ones; intentionally calling on voices with different ideas; and scrutinizing your personal media bubble. (Take a look at who you’re following on social media. How many of them look like you?)

When leaders compartmentalize themselves as leaders—a genuine human in one place, an association executive in another—toxicity breeds.

At their session “Making Big Governance Moves,” two representatives from the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Boards talked about how old habits in terms of board qualifications not only restricted the pool of potential board candidates but also preserved long-running biases about who did and didn’t belong in CLARB’s volunteer leadership. Once the association began to loosen requirements of its board members and made room for more appointed at-large candidates, it could look more intentionally about the kinds of skills it needed for the future, and find a more diverse range of board members who could fill that role. 

Similarly, at “Survey Says … Your Board Did What??,” representatives from Association Laboratory talked about some of the ways boards can undermine themselves by getting stuck in the weeds or drifting off-topic. The session was framed as a “Family Feud”-style quiz, and there were plenty of opportunities for attendees to share some I-can’t-believe-my-board-member-did-that stories. But the session was also a call for leaders to compassionately but firmly guide and direct their leaders to focus on strategy. It also included one of the best slides I saw at #ASAE22: “A board that allows personality and legacy issues to drive its culture and fails to address disincentives to change will struggle to establish itself as a future-focused, strategic decision-making body.”

But the most powerful disruptions might be the ones leaders create within themselves. During the session “Modern Leadership and Strategy: Lessons From an Executive Road Trip,” four association executives described how traveling in the close quarters of a minivan unlocked a host of pandemic-era anxieties: burnout, work-life balance, Zoom fatigue, imposter syndrome. The prevailing message is that when leaders compartmentalize themselves as leaders—a genuine human in one place, an association executive in another—toxicity breeds. That doesn’t mean leaders need to be oversharing, anything-goes, slack bosses, MSP account executive Sara Wood explained. But it does mean that better leadership means recognizing both your challenges and others’, and finding ways to adapt. “Our role is to deal with the uncomfortable stuff with grace and transparency,” she said.

A tall order. But it’s in that disruption where real change begins.

What were some of your top takeaways from #ASAE22? Share your experiences in the comments. 

(Drepicter/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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