Tips for Overcoming Leadership Ambiguity in Associations

February 16, 2009 at 11:36 am Leave a comment

What is leadership ambiguity?  In many ways, one might consider it to be somewhat of an oxymoron as ambiguity can reach the level of being the anthithesis of leadership. 

Based upon observations made along my career path over the past 14 years, I would define leadership ambiguity as an over-dependence on consensus and conflict sensitivity which yields a sense of ambiguity within stakeholders as to the direction, priorities and expectations of an organization.  Leadership ambiguity can be a long-term pattern or it can flare up in specific instances.  At one time or another, we have all been guilty of ambiguous leadership mainly because we are… well, human.

Given its inadvertent dilution of authority, leadership ambiguity can create a sense of teamwork extremism, resulting in somewhat of an implosion of team.  An ambiguous organizational culture is a fertile environment in which emotional toxicity thrives in its power to hold progress hostage.  Like a drifting ship without an anchor, leadership ambiguity often leans toward a preservation of peace and avoidance of perceived emotional volatility at the cost of prolonging the inevitable war.  Ambiguous leaders are tested early and often by others in an attempt to establish how far the envelope can be pushed.  If the leader isn’t willing to lead, either by design or default, there will always be others who are willing to step in lead by applying pressure.   

The good news is patternistic amibguous leaders are often extremely well-intentioned individuals who are highly skilled in areas other than assertive or visionary leadership.  Let’s face it, as leaders we all struggle with finding the delicate balance between micro-managing control and motivational consensus.  But as a country song by Aaron Tippin once put it, “You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything”.  Tippin also sings of not being a “puppet on a string” as well as “never compromising for what’s right”.  Perhaps it’s this quality alone which seperates leadership from management.  

If you find yourself at any point along the spectrum of ambiguous leader, below are some tips for escapting these clutches of ambiguity :

Develop Strategic Leadership Themes:  Identify the 2-3 key priorities which are crucial to your associations future and establish them as clear and recurring leadership themes.  Continue to reinforce on a daily basis as they relate to the work of the association.  

Identify Objective Key Measures for Prioritization and Decision-Making:  Building upon strategic leadership themes, identify a set of key measures which are to be used in decision-making when internal groups or managers reach an impass.  Participation and contrarian views are, of course, an important component of decision-making; however, in sorting through competing priorities it’s important to have guiding measures for fostering good decisions.

Cultivate and Use Leadership Captial:  Leadership capital is the good will currency which is amassed through the effective use of inclusive participation, compromise and consensus.  As leaders, we don’t want to take a hardline stance on every issue and as the saying goes, we should always choose our battles wisely.  However, when dialogue has been exhausted and consensus is out-of-reach, it is time for the leader to step forward and lead.  Looking for the courage or strength to do so?  Re-visit the first two tips above and tap into your key leadership themes and key measures.  Unless the situation is an absolute anomaly, be consistent.

Reach Out and Listen… Really Listen:  When approaching difficult or controversial decisions, be certain to have provided plenty of opportunity for all immediate and extended stakeholders to share their perspectives, insights and reasoning with you.  Ideally, the listening stage should occur before you have divulged your leadership direction.  Even more, keep an open-mind to what is being said as it will likely help you further shape and fine tune your direction.  Your final decision still may not win favor with stakeholders, but respect and trust can be retained when you have invested all stakeholders in the process.  When people grow angry over decisions which are made, it’s usually because they never had a chance to participate in the dialogue to share their valuable perspectives and hidden risks.          

Advance a Vision of the Future:  We all dream of a better future for just about every aspect of our lives.  The same holds true within an organization.  Through data, trends and instinct, it’s important that the leader have a sense of where the organization is headed.  This is important for two crucial reasons.  First, a strong vision can be a great motivator for others to follow as the organization journey’s toward it’s future.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, a clear vision can serve as writing on the wall to others within the organization who may not share the same ideals.

Help Toxic People Move On:  The role of association leader is hard enough without having staff who may feel endangered for one reason or another which can often undermine your efforts.  I realize “toxic” is a fairly intense term.  As a matter of fact, these types of individuals are not necessarily bad people as quite often they’re simply scared of change or of potentially losing control of their piece of the world.  Sometimes they wake up and discover the association is no longer the same organization in which they once thrived.  In my mind, an individual only becomes “toxic” when they spread their fear and discontent across the organization.  At the end of the day, there is most likely a happier and much less stressful place out there for these types of individuals.  Help them move on and one day they might realize it was the best thing that ever happened to them.

Be the Source of Unwavering Hope:  Leadership can be as simple as providing hope when there is none to be had… a source of strength for others in their weakest hour.   As leaders, we must have strong shoulders to lean upon and an inexhaustable degree of conviction.  There will be times that there are no magical answers or words which can sugarcoat a tough situation; however, your team looks to you to lead them away from setback and back on track toward a better future.  At the end of the day, there is no playbook or course which can teach “hope” as it is perhaps the most defining characteristic which seperates leaders from followers.

Lead on… SM

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Entry filed under: Human Imperfection, Managing Change, Organizational Management, participation, people.

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