This guest post is by Shelly Alcorn, CAE, an association-management consultant. Reach her on Twitter @shellyalcorn, on LinkedIn or at the Association Subculture Blog.

Think for a moment about the qualities a perfect leader. A series of adjectives pop into your head. Maybe you picture a person who is a fearless, visionary, innovative, independent thinker. Or maybe you see someone who is a careful, detail-oriented, focused consensus builder. On top of that, the definition of the perfect leader probably changes based on circumstances. Depending on the context, maybe your idea of the perfect leader is a Patton and, in others, a Gandhi.

When you consider the range of talents a “perfect leader” might need, it is unreasonable to expect one individual to embody every leadership quality needed to succeed in today’s environment. Complex environments require a complex set of skills. Rarely, if ever, can we find all talents needed in one individual. What does that mean for leadership in our associations and not-for-profit corporations? How can we adapt to this environment?

What if we flip our thinking and stop waiting for the “one great leader who can do it all” and instead develop processes to identify and combine the best talents in our groups? We know some situations call for someone with a light touch, and others call for a more forceful approach. What if we could have both at our disposal?

Not-for-profit associations are poised to create a collaborative leadership structure that harnesses the power of the group and move away from the “cult of the individual.” I suggest that association leaders focus on identifying and using leadership qualities that already exist within their volunteer and staff base. We could then deploy a broad range of leadership qualities and skills on critical issues affecting our associations and member citizens as well as their industries and professions.

Here are five things to keep in mind when creating a collaborative leadership structure in associations and nonprofits.

  • Acknowledge the environment. Accept that complex environments require a more sophisticated leadership structure than the traditional hierarchical model of the past century.
  • Start simply. Make small shifts in language and terminology to support your outlook on leadership. Use different vocabulary to create opportunities to think about leadership differently.
  • Use a strengths-based approach. Ask volunteers and staff about their strengths, and concentrate on reinforcing and using those skills. Link innovators with detailed people, connect visionaries with tacticians and introduce social networkers to problem solvers.
  • Define expectations. Setting clear policy regarding conflicts of interest and codes of conduct are vital to creating a strong leadership culture within your volunteer leadership base.
  • Develop appropriate training. Leadership training must focus less on “definitions” and drawing on “examples of great leaders” and more on group processes that take advantage of skills already in the room. Interpersonal communications and collaborative processes are key to accelerating the development of a deep bench of strong volunteer and staff leaders.

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10 responses to “Spotlight on Association Leadership: What does the perfect leader look like?”

  1. Teddy says:

    Great points on not waiting for the "perfect leader" to show up. Our church is attempting to develop more collaborative leadership. It seems more companies and organizations are looking for groups of leaders instead of one person to stand up & I am the leader.

    Thanks for points

  2. Charles says:

    Hi Shelly, enjoyed this perspective on leadership and colaboration. We are in early stages of deveioping a new partnership and it sounds like the correct method to adopt! Thanks

  3. One way to tease out the strengths you note needing identification might be the old Group Resume exercise (from Mel Silbermann ) in which you ask a group of participants to create s skills-based resume that accurately reflects the mix of experience, knowledge, and talent present. You can download a version of it here:

  4. Hi Charles and Jeffrey –

    Glad you liked the post! Jeffrey – thanks so much for the link – what a great tool!

    Thanks for the comments!


  5. kevin zamora says:

    I believe Collaborative Leadership happens all the time at the workplace….It just so happens no one calls it collaborative and people involved don't necessarily get credit for a "leadership" role or leadership title. This occurs when managers hold meetings and ask for everyone's opinion or when a manager asks for opinions from a select few.

    Many Tech companies have a flat hierarchy with minimal reporting managers. The philosophy is that everyone will come together to solve problems.

  6. Kevin –

    I think that is a great thing – and you're right that many times these structures develop in an organic way. Tech has been particularly good about embracing these processes. The hope is that more organizations ( nonprofits and associations in particular) will become more intentional about it when instituting leadership processes in volunteer settings.

    Thanks for the comment!


  7. Dr G S Singh says:

    Kevin, Shelly,

    Beg to differ here. Flat structure with out credit being given for one's leadership skills and one man takes it all, over a period of time is detrimental to leaders growth and ideas. On the other hand quality of collaborative leadership flows from the personality of the CEO and his dispensation towards his people. Seen companies, where the change at the top makes the whole company tow the line of the leader and smell of the place changes for the worse.

  8. whatdoyouexpect says:

    Some wise words regarding leadership, especially focussing on the collaborative aspect. As someone who focuses on "expectations" (my book is "What do you expect? The Question you need to ask!"), I heartily agree with point four on defining expectations, but suggest carrying that further than policy and codes of conduct. Those are important, and may be excellent starting places. But in reality expectations abound throughout the organization, especially as there may be multiple levels of leadership. Organizations and leaders need to get beyond seeing expectations as a one time exercise and discover it is an ongoing process of clarification. I believe that would fit well with your model.

  9. […] stumbled across an article by Shelly Alcorn entitled What does the perfect leader look like?, and it prompted me to recall some of the leadership lessons I’ve learned over the years. Shelly […]