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What makes a great leader? And better yet – what makes a great association leader?

Associations work is a unique field, and there are certain qualities needed for associations leaders to be effective in their role and create positive change.

But what skillsets are needed to lead your organization in a time of constant change and modern challenges?

Being a great leader requires embodying a cocktail of positive professional attributes, as well as strong interpersonal skills. If you’re looking to “level up” your leadership skills in the new year, look no further than this list – we’ve got you covered. 

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1. Ability to Listen

To lead is to be able to listen. No one wants to follow someone or be managed by someone who doesn’t listen to the input of others. A good leader is someone who’s also a good listener and respects the viewpoints of others. Leading and managing are some of the most challenging endeavors, but there are certain hacks to make it a more seamless affair, and listening well is one of those hacks. 

Have you ever noticed when you’re talking to someone and you can tell that they’re not really paying attention, but rather, they appear to be waiting their turn to speak? Don’t be that person – and certainly don’t be that leader. A good associations leader actively listens with the intent to understand, not the intent to respond. By listening to and valuing all voices within the association, you will take your team to new heights. 

2. Desire to Elevate Others

And speaking of heights – a good leader is someone who wants to uplift others, too. You know the saying: You’re only as strong as the weakest link. If one person within the association is struggling or creating discord, pay attention to that person, and figure out the best way to hear them, see them, and elevate them. Rising tides lift all ships, and when you can lead smartly, effectively, and compassionately, the people you work with will thank you for it. 

Related: Finding and Empowering Introverted Association Leaders Learn More >

Elevating others as a leader may look like serving as a mentor to others, providing a listening ear, doing a favor for a colleague (like writing a positive reference on their LinkedIn page), or getting to know them on an interpersonal level (i.e. asking them, “how are your kids doing?”). When people feel valued, trusted, seen, and supported, they work better and contribute more value. How awesome is it that you can elevate others so impactfully in a leadership role? And it starts small, too. Minor tweaks and changes – like showing care and support – yield big, positive results. 

3. Attachment to a Vision 

What good is a visionless leader? Everyone needs a vision for their life, and every leader needs a clear vision of what they’re hoping to achieve in their leadership role. Having a solid vision about where you want your association to go or what you hope the association achieves will propel you and motivate you on the days when nothing seems to go right and everything feels hard. 

And we all have those days. 

You may also want to check in regularly with the drafted vision you have for your association. The vision may change as time goes on, and staffing changes may affect the vision too. And that’s okay. Adjust and adapt as needed. Be committed to your vision but flexible in your approach. A great leader creates the vision and allows others to get excited about it, too. 

The Harvard Business School emphasizes the importance of being decisive, and that’s true of being decisive around your vision, too. “Once you make a decision, stick with it,” writes Lauren Landry for HBS. “Your goal is to move the organization forward, but that won’t happen if you can’t make a decision without wavering.

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4. Process-Oriented Approach 

And on the way to that vision, you will need a step-by-step plan for how to get there! Getting from point A. to point B. can be challenging; the best way to achieve steps along the path is by focusing on the process rather than the end goal. By finding joy and fulfillment on the journey and through the process, you will be more effective and speedier at reaching your goal. 

Related: 5 Change Management Best Practices for Maximum Success Learn More >

Committing to a process-oriented approach to growth will also allow others you work with to feel like they are contributing. If you are bulldozing as a leader – running things in a “my way or the highway” fashion – the people around you will not be as committed to the vision, and you will lose crucial community support. Being process-oriented allows for fun, flexibility, and joy in the journey. 

5. A Dedication to Growth

And speaking of growth – a great associations leader is growth-minded. As a leader, you should seek ways to grow, improve, and strengthen your existing skills and learn new ones. Think about how motivating and exciting it is to be around people who are striving to be the best versions of themselves; you could be that motivation for those around you. By seeking new heights for yourself, you are lifting others up, too. 

While there are plenty of skills that make for a great association leader, people love to follow a leader who is committed to growth, has a big vision, supports communities and who also strives to empower those around them.

Anne McCarthy
Post by Anne McCarthy
January 3, 2023
Anne McCarthy is a freelance journalist who reports on tech and culture. She is a contributing writer to the BBC, The Guardian, WIRED, Teen Vogue, Ms. Magazine, and more.