I recently published an article about authentic leadership, directing people’s attention towards the leadership structure of their organization in order to feel its social, economic, political and environmental pulse. The experience of being interviewed provoked me to reflect on my personal leadership style, the leaders around me, and what authenticity means for the way we organize our associations.
Two important aspects of authentic leadership are reflection and honesty. Associations are all looking to make a mark on the world in some way, and doing good at this level begins with the way we interact on a smaller, more immediate scale. Personal interactions within our organizations are foundations upon which to build a meaningful course for change.
True Leadership Starts with Honesty
As an African-American female association executive, my workplace interaction experience has been loaded by and infused with this personal standing. I have experienced my share of prejudice. My boss once told me that I was good at communicating with members because I “sounded white”. This happened after I had led the organization to a 35% increase in membership and tripled its state chapter model in three years, leading to a substantial increase in revenue.
For leadership to be effective, authentic, and transformational, we need to evaluate and confront the integrity of our behaviors. I am in a leadership position myself. I have the capacity to be complicit in problematic behaviors, or to make changes. I didn’t do anything about this experience of discrimination, and I wonder whether true leadership is about admitting one’s shortcomings.
Leading with Honest Evaluation
Authentic leadership means to me that leaders in associations must go a step further in evaluating their actions and how they impacts the organization. This is not a performance evaluation, but rather an honest assessment of whether you are leading with integrity and creating a positive organizational culture by identifying and correcting your shortcomings. Are you self-evaluating? If not, why not?
I recommend starting with the book StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath. It includes the new version of its popular assessment which has helped millions uncover their talents. My current boss provided our entire staff with copes and encouraged us to have a dialogue about our findings. When your association leader uses self-evaluation techniques to strengthen their own leadership, this inevitably empowers others to do the same. Authenticity is contagious.
Association leadership comes down to people: interacting with them in ways that improve and grow the association. The social, economic, and political climate today is turbulent and awkward. Despite environmental impacts, associations represent people, industries, and professions. We would be foolish to believe that as association leaders, what is happening “out there” is not impacting our members, volunteers, and staff. How we manage and evaluate ourselves is critical to providing leadership to others.
What I Wish I Did
Looking back, I wish I had said and done more after the incident outlined above. I wish I had reached out to my association community to address stories similar to mine, so that we could rebuild our organizations and reach our potential from the ground up.
We have seen in news emerging from the private sector that apologizing too late, after not taking responsibility, is disastrous. As association professionals, we need to raise ourselves to higher standards – after all, we have whole communities in our charge. If we are to represent industries and professions, we must also represent ourselves and our leadership authentically.