When it comes to association management, it’s important to think about how we lead. In fact, you first need to decide that you’re going to be a leader, rather than a manager.

Recently, I read the book Transformational Governance by Beth Gazley and Katha Kissman. The idea is that it’s possible to help boards — including association boards — achieve a high-level of positive change by shifting the way we view governance as a way of leading instead of merely managing.

This change in mindset isn’t just about boards, however. The difference between leading up and managing up should be acknowledged at every level of an association.

What is Leading Up?

When you talk about managing, it’s really more about top-down control. The boss (or the board or the association president) is in control. They issue commands, and they demand certain outcomes. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting positive outcomes for your nonprofit association, it’s important to understand that sometimes the top-down approach might not lead to the best outcomes.

With a managing up approach, others in the organization don’t necessarily feel comfortable coming to a boss or manager to share ideas. This could lead to misunderstandings — and there’s a good chance you’re missing out on creative solutions to problems.

Leading up, on the other hand, is about fostering dialogue and encouraging those around you to step up and be leaders in their own right as well. As a leader in a nonprofit organization, you have the ability to be more of a mentor, helping those around you find their own creative voices and feel valued.

When others feel valued, they are more likely to do better work and come up with solutions that can take you in newer and better directions. The idea is to increase awareness of what is happening in the organization, better understand the mission, and then apply principles to improve the function of the nonprofit association.

With leading up, you don’t dictate an outcome. Instead, you foster meaningful dialogue that allows others in the association to work with you to determine what the best outcomes might be, and how everyone can work together toward a common mission.

Empowerment Helps Everyone

Too often, we think of objectives as something that comes from the top. However, when you’re at the top of the organizational structure, it’s easy to isolate yourself. When you aren’t listening to the voices of the people on the ground, actually doing the work, you run the risk of missing something vital. You might think you know best, but do you?

When you start leading up, you encourage those who can see the practical, day-to-day workings of the association to share their thoughts and insights. They might see something you miss. Leading up is about recognizing that everyone has something to contribute — and then empowering them to take action and share.

By transforming the way you handle your association governance, and shifting your mindset, it’s possible to create an organization that fosters creative, capable leaders who can accomplish great things. When you empower by leading up, rather than merely managing your human capital, things really start to happen.

When we take associations through strategic planning exercises, we like to start with the core values and mission of the organization. And we think it’s important that not just those at the top of the hierarchy share their thoughts. In fact, it’s fairly obvious, once we get in there, which organizations take a leading up approach, and which focus more on managing up.

The perceived mission of any nonprofit association needs to be understood throughout, but perhaps the objectives used to measure the effectiveness of the mission might be off. Or, alternatively, there are different approaches to moving forward.

We get to the heart of those issues and encourage associations to transform their governance from one of managing up to one of leading up. It’s not always an easy transformation, and there can be bumps along the way, but this shift in how governance is viewed yields positive returns when successfully implemented.

By getting ideas and empowering your association employees and volunteers, you can transform your entire organization and make a more significant — and positive — difference in the world.