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June 02, 2008

Wearing your colors: How association leadership is (a little bit) like joining a gang

It seems all movies about gangs have the same story line. A good kid’s friends fall into hanging out with some other kids who are up to no good. The bad kids are part of a gang. The good kid wants to be accepted, and decides to join the gang. But as a rite of initiation, they make him do something awful. Rob an apartment, beat up another kid, or worse. The gang requires new entrants to prove that they’re truly committed and worthy of admission.

I admit it’s hyperbole to the Nth degree, but it seems to me that moving up the leadership hierarchy in many associations may have analogous initiation rites, although these are more likely to be self-imposed by the volunteer herself.

Imagine this scenario. An aspiring association volunteer has visions of being elected to the board; even of becoming board chair. But before she can get into the good graces of those in power, she has to prove her commitment to the way that those in power think. She has views about the association that she feels compelled to suppress. She discourages herself from speaking her mind about matters that don’t appear to respect and assent to the orthodoxy. To have any chance of moving up the ladder, she needs those in power to believe that she with their view of things.

As the years go by, she continues suppressing her opinions and eventually ceases to remember them. She has killed off the unique views that bring an alternative view to the table. One day, she forgets that she even held different beliefs about the future of her association. This scenario – or some close variation of it – must get played out every year to many association volunteers. I’ve not only witnessed it, I’ve experienced it as a volunteer leader.

I sympathize with volunteer leaders who want to get to the top. What do you do? Stay true to your dissenting opinions at the risk of looking like a renegade and missing out on the nomination? Or suppress those dissenting opinions and try to convince the others that you’re “one of them”?

Through member outreach, I often bring association members into the volunteer fold and jokingly tell them, “Don’t become one of them.” I’m starting to think this might actually be a more serious matter.

What do you think of this phenomenon? Do you see it happening in your association or the one you belong to? Do you think it’s a problem? What should be done about it, if anything?

It takes a confident volunteer, board, and staff to allow – even encourage – dissenting opinions around the boardroom table. I like Jeff De Cagna’s idea of a dissent agenda, forcing association boards to grapple with issues that are often avoided simply because they do create uncomfortable dissent. There must be other strategies.

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David M. Patt, CAE said...

Associations reinforce conformity (I wanted to say "reek with" conformity, but that would be too unorthodox). A dissent agenda is a great way to assure diversity of discussion.

However, a dissenting leader needs to be diplomatic and viewed as offering a counter-opinion, not as trying to upend the organization.

Also, a dissenting leader needs to identify and assemble like-minded members. Otherwise, the Board will simply view him or her as a "renegade" member and not representative of any membership segment.

Dissenting positions, no matter how valuable, are not likely to be adopted without a broader base of member support.

Tony Rossell said...

Ben -- Good thoughts. I guess one option would be for the dissenting volunteer to start a blog. If you have a high enough profile, you can be roped into leadership. Tony

Anonymous said...

I have experienced this not as association management but as association staff. I was employed for nearly eight years at a local Builder's Association and saw this first hand. Those members who did not have opinions that were in line with the executive director were squeezed out of leadership roles. The executive director probably thought they were doing this behind the scene work for the good of the association, but the reality was they were holding back the association. New creative ideas were slammed down (those coming from volunteers and other staff as well) and only the ideas that were in line with the directors vision were upheld. It makes for a sinking ship- if an association is not willing to change course!