I have highly valued legacy, up until I read Milan Kundera’s book “Immortality”, and I came to the relieving conclusion that legacy is rather an overrated concept. Strange introduction, you might say, for an article talking about the contribution of association leaders in association legacy, but if contradictions exist in one place this is certainly in the association world. Do not get me wrong, I value legacy, but my understanding is a little bit different from the definition “what we leave behind to be remembered by”, simply because I do not think that we really control how we are remembered, especially not today and certainly not when we are not around anymore.
If we really care about the impact that our association and us personally as association leaders may generate, there are three elements that we should closely consider: ego, ownership, and disruption.
Associations, especially trade or professional, tend to define themselves solely through the interest of their members without understanding their relative position in the wider environment they operate in and influence. This introspective view of things limits the understanding of the greater picture and the boundaries of their impact.
The impact of this can be easily captured in their vision and purpose statements, that usually talk only about themselves (the association, sector, members) and how great they want to be. They often forget that their greatness might be of no one’s interest and even worse, that their greatness might have severe externalities and negative impact to others. We are not alone in this world, and we cannot control our fate solely.
To create a legacy and allow it to flourish, we need to create value that will not only benefit us but also those that are affected by us, including the planet.
Associations are structures and while people can be inspired by their authority, they hardly connect with them. It is other people like us that we connect with. Increasingly, CEOs are becoming the face of an associations, embodying their values and vision. Their personality becomes an indivisible element of the association brand, and their voice becomes the voice of the membership.
Despite their huge influence the Association Leaders are just the caretakers, not the owners of the association. They take care of the vision that inspires and unites members and stakeholders, until they pass it to the next caretaker.
We cannot own the vision of an association, for the simple reason that it will stop being the vision of the association and it will be just our personal one. Association leaders should acknowledge the boundaries of their respective role, enjoy it as long as it lasts and pass it on to the next one. If they have really created value as leaders, they will successfully continue their path and keep on building their legacy.
As caretaker, despite yours and your association’s organisation skills, you will have to deal with unpredictable situations and crises.
Especially today we operate in a very disruptive environment that requires resilience and creativity to be able to remain relevant and sustainable.
In addition, association leaders, being the face of the association, have to navigate in an extremely challenging environment where every communication, truthful or not, is publicly available and can virally spread creating a huge positive or negative impact. Today, the digital media environment brings forth the very simple notion that controlling our legacy is an extremely difficult and technical issue.
An effective way to escape from legacy’s continuous stress is to understand our relative position in this world and to be honest as to who we are, what we do and what drives us. After all the energy and time spent caring on how we can protect our legacy, it can be spent in much more constructive and positive action. So, let’s try to leave behind our ego and be ready for change…and legacy will follow.
First published in Boardroom Magazine February 2020 with the title “Who Determines an Association’s Legacy?”