I attended a Rotary dinner last night and sat next to someone who once served as district governor. I asked her how governors are chosen. She explained the requirements and nominating process. The final step is to present yourself before a committee and answer questions. She said, "Some people are wonderful on paper, but they have no microphone presence. As district governor you have to be able to command the attention of an audience." When we think about leadership, we often think about this form: the leader as a dynamic personality that people look to. However, there are other kinds of leadership and a useful association acts as a leader to their members— despite not having all the answers.
Leading a Bunch of Angry Marines Across the Jungle
One night, in the jungles of Hawaii, I lead a company patrol across truly terrible terrain. I had been tasked with trailblazing a route between two training areas for the other 150 Marines in my company. I navigated across gullies so steep that it was more like climbing than hiking. The jungle was impenetrable, dense with brush, and would have been impossible to see more than thirty feet in broad daylight. Eventually, an officer decided that we were lost, and angrily asked me where we were. I showed him on my map and then he pulled out a GPS, intending to reveal my incompetence, and discovered that I was exactly right.
I wasn't the highest ranking person in the company. I hadn't served the longest. I didn't have the most experience. I wasn't popular or loud. But for that miserable march through the jungle, I was a leader.
Leadership is simply leading a group of people through uncertainty. That can be a night patrol for a company of Marines or a membership through a rapidly evolving industry.
Using the Pond to Lead the Way
Associations are the pond where the geese gather, but you can also be the lead goose in the V formation.
I had a call with a client once who pulled six other people into our conversation about a web app that we were building for him. They were on the call because they were the most capable people that he knew who had experience in digital. It was an unofficial board of advisors. With all the different perspectives, the meeting came to a comprehensive solution— despite the inexperience of our client.
Similarly, when your association takes the role of leader, you don't have to have all the answers. Instead, your role is to identify the problem and organize the people who care about it and could contribute to solving it. As it relates to digital, your website is an ideal location to plant your flag and discuss the initiative because it can draw in both internal and external stakeholders.
Leadership is Innovation
Leadership is an expression of innovation, in that you discover new solutions that benefit others. In Marketing General's annual benchmarking report they found that:
Association executives reporting increases in one-year and five-year membership levels and increases in new member acquisitions and member renewals are significantly more likely to consider their association extremely or very innovative. (Marketing General)
Leading is inherently risky. You might get accosted by your own version of an angry officer. But that's why we celebrate leaders. Without someone willing to step up, problems stagnate. That's why leading innovation in overcoming shared obstacles creates a natural following. Even if you don't have all the answers or an executive director with "microphone presence."