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How to Lead Your Association Through Difficult Times

Written by Christina Green | on September 28, 2016 at 8:30 AM

Tips for leading your association during difficult times.

When it rains, it pours.

And man, is it pouring. It seems like every few hours we hear another piece of crummy news from the media, our friends, or our coworkers. Something always seems to be going wrong, which may just be a symptom of the fact that we're living in turbulent, uncertain times. Times that can be more than a little frightening.

Societal, professional, and personal problems are cropping up with dizzying speed, and they're having a noticeable impact all over the world. They're certainly affecting your association and its members.

We live in difficult times and during difficult times people look for, and to, leaders.

Are you one of those leaders?

What do your members, your staff, and your professional connections see when they look at you? How can you meet their needs?

A Leader Will Arise

Students of history will tell you that uncertain times bring decisive leadership into the spotlight – sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. A leader will arise in your industry and your association. But if you're in that position, you may feel overwhelmed. Being the leader your association needs is not an easy task.

Whether you're dealing with a national tragedy or managing extreme cases of change, emotions are raw and nerves exposed in turbulent times. A leader with high emotional intelligence, forethought, and experience is essential. Here are a few tips to help you become that leader or develop your current skills more fully.

5 Tips for Becoming an Effective Association Leader in Difficult Times

Tip #1) Master Your Own Fear

"Leadership is the ability to hide your panic from others." - Lao Tuz

A good leader cannot be expected to be completely fearless in the recesses of his or her mind. If you have something at stake, you will have fear and doubt. It could be about something as simple as switching your association management or online community software after years with another system or something larger like managing the public relations and safety concerns behind a protest in your conference's host city.

Keeping things in perspective is one of the best ways to manage your own fear so that you can continue inspiring others. Dwelling on the possibility that your new email campaign will fail isn't worth your time or concern, for example, because it likely won't affect your members in the long-term. It's a learning experience. Safety concerns, on the other hand, should be taken seriously with expert help brought in when necessary.

Regardless of your situation, you need to manage your own fears and doubts so they don't become contagious. Make the best decisions you can with the information you have. Remain transparent in your decision-making process, and recognize the difference between life-threatening safety concerns and career-threatening issues.

Tip #2) Love and Respect Your Mission

"The courage of leadership is giving others the chance to succeed even though you bear the responsibility for getting things done." - Simon Sinek

In relationships, it's common to come across the dilemma of doing what's best for the person or organization you love or doing what you want personally. You'll face this as an association leader as well.

Every association has a mission and that mission comes first over individual objectives. This is difficult because so many association executives take pride in their work as the leader of that mission. Yet in difficult times, sometimes you must look beyond yourself and ask if your actions and decisions are best for the mission, or best for you. Is this a feather in your cap or the future of your association? A great association leader will strive to see the difference.

The board and the members have entrusted you with the association's care and longevity. This is a humbling role. Do your best to keep your personal interests out of the decision-making capacity.

Tip #3) Be Prepared

"No matter how many times you save the world; it always manages to get back in jeopardy again." - Mr. Incredible

A good leader reacts quickly with the best information they have. An exceptional leader surveys the horizon and prepares for possibilities so that when difficult times approach they're ready. For today's leader that involves an understanding of best practices in hostile situations as well as managing change.

You don't know if your next challenge will be internal or external but having a contingency plan for what-ifs and worst case scenarios will improve your ability to handle the situation.

Tip #4) Keep Learning – Education Doesn't End with School

"Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." - Winston Churchill

Children frequently lament that they can't wait to be done with school. They want to be adults because there isn't any homework. Most adults chuckle at their naivety. Learning doesn't end with school. While there might not be exact pages assigned to you every night, as an association leader you need to be listening and learning every day from your members, peers, and industry experts.

A good leader keeps an open mind and learns from examples of what has and hasn't worked both historically and today. There is no better way to improve your association and its operations.

Tip #5) Let Go of the "Because I Said So" Days

"You don't lead by hitting people over the head. That's assault, not leadership." - Dwight D. Eisenhower

Being an association leader today is difficult not just because of economic or professional fear and uncertainty, but also because today's leaders are required to do more than just lead. Association hierarchy is crumbling. Leaders no longer receive respect just because of the role they hold within an organization.

Now they're called on to be strong and empathic. They're asked to lead from consensus at the same time that there's a loud debate on whether consensus-based decisions are really effective. 

Great association leaders of today know how to walk the tightrope of leadership and collaboration. They are still the final authority on critical matter, but they no longer dictate all their decisions. Instead, great leaders communicate effectively, remain transparent, and use all the resources at their disposal.

They're less concerned with their reputation and accolades than they are with developing solid long-term organizational strategies and leaving their association in good hands after their term.

Essential Leadership Skills Takeaway

"Leaders should be visible, accessible and approachable, and never stop learning." - Richard Branson

As your association's leader, you're the foundation on which the organization runs. It's up to you to guide your association through today's turbulence, ensuring that everyone, from members and volunteers to expert staff, comes out on top.

Just remember that you don't have to go it alone. Learn from others at all levels. Your interns may have something to teach you about work-life balance, while your members may help you gain a clearer view of what your association should look like in the future.

In the best of times, or the worst of times (here's to Charles Dickens) you still have everything you need to make your association successful.

The most successful membership managers practice these 11 habits.

Topics: Communications, Associations, Member Experience, Online Community

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