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The Prometheus Paradox.

The mythological Greek god Prometheus may have be n the first association executive. In a heroic effort to save the world, Prometheus darted to heaven, stole fire from the gods, and returned to earth. His gift of fire ensured human survival and marked the beginning of civilization. In response, the gods chained Prometheus to a rock, where an eagle daily devoured his liver. His liver was regenerated nightly so that the punishment would be repeated eternally.

Prometheus (whose name means "he who foresees") was caught in a paradox. He knew that giving fire to the world would upset his celestial board of directors. But the value of fire was of such long-range importance, he was compelled to act, despite the knowledge that it would doom him to grief and destruction. He was a hero to some, a villain to others.

Like Prometheus, association executives face a paradox. As leaders and managers, association executives must both "do things right" and "do the right things," a situation first described by Henry Mitzberg in The Nature of Managerial Work.

Push and pull

Association executives encounter the Prometheus Paradox trying to meet today's member needs while steering a visionary course. The association must deliver programs and services to meet current needs to prevent dissatisfaction and loss of revenue. But to ensure a successful future, the association must anticipate future trends and position itself and its members accordingly. This tug-of-war between today's needs and tomorrow's demands constantly pushes and pulls association leaders.

Perhaps that is why member surveys have become an icon of the times. Providing statistically reliable data, a survey can identify member needs, allowing associations to respond with targeted programs. This is "push" leadership: Member needs push leaders toward programming decisions.

But in the long term, associations do not thrive on surveys alone. Association leaders know that what members want today may not be what they will want or need in the future. Visionary decisions lack the comfort of member surveys. Visioning, futures studies, scenario writing, and long-range strategic planning help outline a future course. This is "pull" leadership: Leaders pull members toward a program or position because of long-term benefits or anticipated needs.

Association executives are often the ones doing the pulling. Just as Prometheus possessed the gift of prophecy, association executives also have a unique advantage. With access to comprehensive information, contact with diverse constituencies, and relationships with related organizations, association executives are attuned to the big picture. That perspective helps association executives anticipate needs before members articulate them. But as Prometheus found, pull leadership is risky.

For example, the 1990 Earth Day celebration gave many associations the opportunity for pull leadership. Some association executives admitted confidentially that members lacked enthusiasm for some association activities in support of the environment. Member surveys never mentioned a need to become environmentally active. But visionary leaders saw the long-term benefits of such programs, despite short-term antipathy from members.

As another example, several years ago one association began to network with potential members in Europe. Ridiculed by some leading members then, that action is now viewed as brilliant in the light of EC '92 and other developments.

The politics of risk

The Prometheus Paradox is the conflict between push leadership and pull leadership. Association leadership includes a responsibility to anticipate the future. Yet the daily pressure to meet specialized member needs is increasing. The more visionary association executives become, the more conflict emerges between push and pull leadership. This paradox intensifies with time.

An even riskier future appears to be in store for association executives. The 1990 ASAE Think Tank on the future of associations found that to succeed in the complex future of associations, executives will need to take more risks.

In a future filled with more risks, how do association executives maintain job security? How do they balance both push and pull leadership? How do they manage with vision but gain commitment from association volunteer leaders who are averse to risk?

Anticipatory management

The key is to manage the risk. Volunteer leaders may lack the big-picture perspective necessary to provide or even appreciate pull leadership, so association executives must share the view from their unique vantage point. This perspective should go beyond the association to include the industry or profession. To enhance understanding of the big picture and manage the risk, a process of anticipatory management can be developed. Such a process might include the following steps:

1. Present a workshop on the future at your association's annual conference and a keynote speech to the assembled attendees. This effort will launch a study of the industry or profession.

2. Conduct focus groups with participants who are considered knowledgeable about future issues in the industry or profession. These small-group forums allow members to express their viewpoints in a nonjudgmental way. Guided questions help identify trends and issues; they draw out diverse thoughts and opinions. Summarize results in a report.

3. Use the focus group report to initiate what is called a Delphi Panel. Experts, including staff, volunteers, and nonmembers, participate as panelists. Pose written questions to panel members. The Delphi Panel, through the mail, responds to the initial report. A Delphi Panel facilitator reviews the written responses and identifies both consensus and disagreement before responding with more finely detailed questions. This process continues through two or three iterations until the panel's thinking is clearly outlined. The Delphi group's deliberations result in a second report.

4. Discuss the Delphi report at a symposium of association leaders. A day of facilitated discussion can be compiled in a third report, which consists of a series of alternative futures of multiple scenarios. Each scenario identifies strategies for the association to pursue.

5. Deliver the final report in mon graph form at the association's next convention. It can be published and sold. The futures monograph may be an attractive advertising opportunity, serving as a useful reference guide for years to come.

The outcome of this process of anticipatory management is a consensus-based vision of possible future scenarios. Scenarios may be "possible," "probable," and "preferable." Implications of each scenario outline members' needs long before members articulate them.

How the future may affect the association and how the association seeks to affect the future becomes more clear. The process also enhances the partnership between staff and involved volunteers.

The goal is to have more people share a broader perspective of future trends and the implications of those trends to moderate the risks of pull leadership. Frequently, members come to view visionary efforts as being as important as their immediate needs.

A responsibility to the future

Prometheus endured torture because he felt a responsibility to the future. Ultimately, he triumphed over suffering because he believed in the righteousness of his cause. Association executives, modern Promethians, can also succeed when faced with push and pull leadership.

By involving volunteer leadership and producing a consensus about potential future developments with continuing reliable assessments of current member needs, associations can achieve a balance between push and pull leadership. The Prometheus Paradox, difficult though it may be, can be managed.

Gary A. LaBranche, CAE, is vice president and director of association consulting for Lawrence-Leiter and Company, Kansas City, Missouri.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:association executives are likened to legendary character who was compelled to do the right thing although it would bring him grief and destruction
Author:LaBranche, Gary A.
Publication:Association Management
Date:Nov 1, 1991
Previous Article:An interface of interest.
Next Article:Getting members, keeping members.

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