Thoughts on Leadership by Tom Dobbins

After joining Lucas and Erin for a great conversation about leadership, we thought it would be a good idea to deep dive into the dynamics of leadership and associations. As associations begin to execute their annual work plans or programs of work, there is no time like the present to think about leadership.

Background and General Principles

Here are a couple of principles that we can’t remind ourselves of enough.  Marcus Buckingham tells us, “Leaders bring clarity”.  And therefore they bring direction and structure, through harnessing the power of the group or team.

To be a good leader you need to be a good follower.  But to be clear, a follower is not a blind follower, but a supporter- asking questions and contributing ideas to the team.  This is how we empower teams and empower others.  If a CEO can’t follow and support a colleague who is leading a team or project, then she or he will not achieve their full potential as a leader.

Staff Leadership

If possible every staff person in an association SHOULD be a leader and owner of something and should think of themselves as the leader of their program or area of responsibility.  The benefit is that people take greater ownership of their program.  And people learn to delegate and empower teams.

RACI is an excellent tool for bringing clarity to everyone’s roles and responsibilities- as leaders and followers.  The R is for responsible; A is for accountable.  C is for consulted and I for Informed.  It is unfortunate how many in associations are afraid of responsibility and accountability.  They hide behind committees or bureaucracy.  It seems most people think they are putting themselves on a high wire with a spotlight and no net.  This should not be the case. Responsibility and accountability are opportunities to shine. There should be a team around the person to support them, as defined by RACI, so they shouldn’t feel like they are on their own. 

As everyone who has worked with me has heard, I have a friend who is a pediatric neurosurgeon, if he makes mistakes kids are killed or crippled.  If we make mistakes we recognize it, apologize and fix it.  So we are not on a high wire if we are working in the right culture.

This is also the argument for making decisions and making them fast.  We should always make informed decisions, but we will never have all the data or information we would like to have.  The best way to see if the course that appears best is best is to take it and see what happens.  If it isn’t right, it will be clear soon enough and we can adjust course. 

Good leaders, work with their team to accumulate the most information possible for a decision in a realistic (short) time period, prioritize it because not all of the factors of a decision are of equal importance, and then work with the team to make the best decision and move on and learn from the decision and correct course.  Generally, the data that we delay the decision for is lower on the priority scale. 

The other strategy is to break down decisions into a series of small decisions that are easier to make and learn from.

Leadership Culture

One has to ask, if people are reluctant to lead and make decisions, what does that say about the culture of the organization?  The leaders of the organization have to create an environment where people are willing to make decisions, take calculated risks, lead and make course corrections without facing negative consequences.  Yes we hold people accountable, but we don’t embarrass people publicly or overreact to a setback, as long as person and team were rigorous in developing their concept, building a plan to execute the concept and being diligent but flexible in execution. 

On the other hand, it doesn’t mean everyone is an island.  We should all be open to questions about what we are doing and why.  And if we have a culture that is focused on excellence then we should all be open to ideas that will make our work better.  As the saying goes, “all of us are better than any of us.”

And teamwork is more fun.  If you have ever played a team sport, been in a band or a play, working together is fun and rewarding.  No surprise, since we are social animals.  We would rather be in a pack than a lone wolf despite some of the messaging of our broader culture.  In a team everyone has a role- they don’t all play the same position, instrument or part in a play.  It is everyone contributing something different that makes it fun and exhilarating. 

Leadership Skills

There may be innate leaders, but like other skills, leadership is most often learned.  If the culture of the organization is supportive and the results are still not there, then one has to look at training.  If a hard-working person of average intelligence in consistently falling short, in this case in their leadership, it is likely that they need some training. 

But I think if everyone in the organization is a recognized leader in some area with others supporting them, then junior people have low-stakes leadership opportunities to develop themselves and more senior people can mentor and support them.  As a person becomes more senior in their organization they are taking on broader leadership responsibilities but also providing and supporting leadership opportunities among their colleagues.

But there can be defined steps as seen below:

  • Create or recognize opportunities
  • Assure clarity around the leadership role and who is following through RACI
  • Encourage engaging the wisdom of the team.  Crowd source with colleagues/members
  • Clarity around what needs to be executed and the timeline
  • Providing mentorship along the way (in private of course)
  • Providing feedback along the way
  • Celebrating success

With the right structure in place most people will be executing within the structure and not trying to forge a leadership path in unknown territory.

Volunteer and Committee Leadership

Helping strengthen the leadership of volunteer leaders is trickier, but many of the same principles apply. 

It starts with clarity of the roles and expectations and the committee’s accountability to the board and the rest of the members.  No committee should be its own island.

The second is structure.  What are the processes, measures, and tools of the committee and how are they best utilized?

With committees culture is key.  A chair that arrives with leadership skills can set the culture and trajectory of the committee in a positive direction and then if that chair mentors her successor, then leadership is baked into the culture.  Sometimes the association staff and volunteer leadership need to step in to assure there is a new chair that comes with the leadership skills if a committee does not have strong leadership within the talent pool and norms of the committee.

A lot of our committees can be made up of technical experts who have received no leadership training during their day jobs.  I would rather bring in a volunteer with leadership expertise with limited technical knowledge to lead a committee than to try to teach a technical expert how to lead in real time.

My hat is off to those associations who do leadership training for their committee leaders. 

And obviously, staff needs to have the self-confidence to work with the committee chair as a peer.  Blind obedience and worse malicious obedience are not in the committee’s or the organization’s best interest.  Again, the culture of the organization has to support that partnership between chair and staff.

Leadership for Those Who Lack Authority

First leadership is not tied to authority.  Sadly, there are those in authority who are not strong leaders and I know plenty of people who are beginning their careers who lack authority but have innate leadership skills or have learned them in school or other jobs.

Again, apply the principles from your vantage point:

  • What are you responsible for in the organization?  Congratulations those are your areas of potential leadership.
  • Who do you work with to accomplish your task?  Congratulations they are your team.
  • Take the time to bring clarity to everyone’s role.  Under RACI if you are responsible for a project or program your boss is probably accountable for the result.
  • Make sure you are clear on the goal of the project or what the program is supposed to accomplish this year.  What does success look like?  Discuss with your boss and team.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your boss questions about goals and delivering success.  Good bosses will interpret it that you are engaged in your work and you care.  Of course timing is everything.  Don’t interrupt them in the middle of other work.  Be organized when you go in so you are respectful of their time and yours.
  • Are you and the team clear on how you are going to deliver the goal?  If not, talk it out and tap the collective wisdom of your group.  Leaders don’t have all the answers but they lead the group to come up with all the answers.
  • If there are areas where you don’t feel you have enough expertise, ask for training.  Again, good organizations will recognize that you want to get better because you care.


Leadership development and leadership opportunities need to be a part of the culture.  And the CEO has to set the tone.

People throughout the organization first need to have clearly defined opportunities.  They may already be leading something and not even realize it.

They need to have space (with appropriate coaching) to experience leadership.  They will also learn by watching the leadership of, and being mentored by, their more senior colleagues. 

The culture has to encourage collaboration, thoughtful risk taking, making decisions and ultimately not punishing failure or falling short of goal.

Strong organizational structure and good processes support everyone’s leadership.

Fortunately, or unfortunately there is more art than science in leadership but clarity and structure sure help everyone’s leadership.

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