Association Leadership IS Global Leadership

12th Feb, 2018

The topic of this edition of Headquarters Magazine is “leadership in the association world”, but I think it is impossible to separate the “association world” from the world at large. Associations play such a vital role in virtually every global issue that we need to get beyond the old-time thinking that associations are a separate part of our economies and our societies. In many cases, they are leading those societies and laying the foundations for those economies.

The importance of association’s in today’s global society can’t be underestimated, and that, in turn, puts enormous pressure for those of us in the association field to identify, attract the very best in our industries, professions, and communities to leadership in our organisations. We can’t just rely on members who have “put in their time” and gone through all of the many, many levels of our organisation charts to be the only ones who attain the top levels of leadership in our organisations. We have to seek out the best and the brightest and use their talents to move forward. Don’t let your association’s structure be a barrier to leadership. Make your structure flexible enough to allow the best people to find a place that is comfortable for them without a minimum number of years, etc.

Here’s why.

First, get away from thinking that an association is not a business. It is. Not-for-profit, NGO, non-profit, etc., are designations given to us by governments that may limit some things we can do and perhaps describe our tax status. But it’s not a business philosophy. Associations have to – in fact, must be – run in a businesslike manner.

Associations have to be efficient in all of the same areas as any successful business – sales (membership), production (programs and services), customer satisfaction (member retention), franchising (chapters and affiliates), and so on. That means our volunteer leaders need to be able manage the association like a business.

There are really only two main differences between businesses and associations: our “bottom line” is our mission, not our profit; and the volunteer has a vital role in the management of the association. To be a global leader, you need to attract and/or develop well-rounded leaders, regardless of their age or years of service.

Second, leadership in both the association management field and among our volunteer membership has gone through a monumental shift in the last 10 years. The Baby-Boomers are in their 60’s and 70’s, and are retiring at a rapid rate. In 2015, Millennials (those born after 1980) became the largest single generation in the global workforce.

We need to realize that the era of spending all of our time trying to figure out how to appeal to Millennials is over. They are already here. They are in their 30’s and in every part of our association, profession, and industry. One of things that Millennials believe is that leadership shouldn’t be tied to seniority; it should be tied to who is best capable of helping us achieve our goal. These are talented, technology-savvy, energetic people who have a lot to offer. Don’t get them excited about your organisation and then have them discouraged by looking at seven layers of a leadership chart they have to navigate to feel as though they are making a contribution. Find meaningful roles for them at every level.

One last comment about Millennials: you might want to re-think titles such as “Young Leaders” and “Young Professionals” for this group. As mentioned, some of them are in their mid-30’s, and ready to be am impactful leader of your organisation. Maybe something like “Emerging Leaders” is more accurate.

As you expand the talents and generational diversity of your leadership (which, by the way, will make you more reflective of the global diversity of the real world) remember that not everyone does things the same way. You need to have an ongoing Leadership Development program in your association that will identify and recruit these new leaders. Just as importantly, when you find these leaders, have a plan for helping them to be successful in their leadership roles.

Dealing with a multi-generational volunteer “workforce” is difficult, so offer some training and insight into how to do that effectively. Not everyone is effective in running small, decision-oriented meetings (Board meetings, Committee meetings) so make that part of your leadership program, too. Focus on skills training that will be needed to be a successful leader in your organisation. The great part about having this kind of leadership development program is that the skills they learn are transferrable back to their careers and their community leadership roles.

More and more governments, industries, professions, and communities are looking to the association community to provide leadership in the global marketplace and in global society in general. Be up to the task by developing the association leadership that meets these challenges.

(Mark Levin, CAE, CSP has more than 20 years of experience as an association executive, and is also an internationally-known speaker and consultant to the nonprofit and association community. He currently serves as Executive Vice President of the Chain Link Fence Manufacturers Institute, an international trade association, and as President of B.A.I., Inc., his speaking and consulting firm.

He can be reached at or via his website at

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