An Association Leader Should…

All living systems, including associations, go through five predictable life cycles: 

  • Birth
  • Growth (formation, adolescence)
  • Maturity
  • Decline
  • Death 

Healthy systems work to avoid decline and eventual death by using the wisdom and calm of maturity to plan a rebirth. Unhealthy systems avoid change as long as possible, often to their own demise.

Leadership often needs to step back from their customary role of being agents for members, promoting members’ interests. They need to become stewards of the system anticipating the future, even as others enjoy the present.

Each life cycle requires leaders to act in specific ways to maintain the development of a healthy association.

During Birth Or Rebirth Leaders Should

  • Encourage risk-taking (Consider it like learning to walk for the first time.)
  • Promote new ideas and constituencies. Protect them from attack by change-resisters
  • Use gentle correction when guiding those blinded by passion and enthusiasm, and unaware of their impact to the entire organization
  • Transition from hand-holding to flight as new ideas, programs and communities are pushed from the nest to fly on their own 

During Growth Leaders Should

  • Work as a united front giving a consistent message and focusing on the health of the overall system and impact of decisions on the system
  • Exercise patience as individuals and committees want more autonomy than they are prepared to handle
  • Encourage risk-taking
  • Embracing learning from failure as a natural process
  • Invest in change, not avoid it
  • Protect risk-takers and those who learn from failure from attack by opponents sensing an opportunity to ambush 

During Maturity Leaders Should

  • Start self-examination and needs analysis
  • Begin discussions about strategies for averting decline and death
  • Maintain open and transparent communications with all
  • Enjoy the moment as “settlers” while encouraging “pioneers” to run with the imagining reigns
  • Set aside budget for strategies that will lead to rebirth (developing new programs, taking new directions, creating new partnerships)
  • Embark on succession planning to attract and engage future leaders

When Decline Cannot Be Averted, Leaders Should

  • Seek the roots of decline
  • Avoid the blame game and using decline for personal agendas
  • Reassess long-term objectives
  • Consider options for revitalization and rebirth
  • Calculate the resource costs (financial, human, time) of renewal
  • Evaluate whether the association can manage these costs
  • Consider how these resources will be organized and implemented
  • Discuss the consequences of not embracing revitalization and preparing for a gracious death
  • Balance the needs of members with their own interests and what’s best for the association
  • Rise above emotions and not isolate themselves from conflict

When Death Is Imminent, Leaders Should

  • Be bold in communications and faithful to members
  • Use justice and generosity when disposing of assets
  • Remind members that all organizations eventually outlive their original mission and either change or die
  • Remember that death is a natural part of the living process and not failure
  • Give notice of pending death graciously

All association leadership needs training in identifying the life cycle stage of the association and their roles during that stage. Ultimately, leaders need to be analytical and calm, avoiding blame and managing conflict.

What other “shoulds” would you add to these life-cycles? Why do association leadership (staff and boards) often ignore symptoms of decline or death?

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