A New Way to Think About Leadership Development   

By Raven Deerwater, Ph.D. with Trish Hudson, MPsSc (Melos Institute)

In this article, Raven Deerwater, Ph.D. explains that associations and other membership-based organizations need to empower their volunteers and volunteer leaders by strengthening and building their leadership capacity. It's also about realizing that some members contribute greatly by serving as leaders/mentors to their fellow members, yet never assume a leadership position.

Gaining insight as a volunteer leader 

One of my first actions as President of the North Bay Chapter of the California Society of Enrolled Agents[1] (CSEA) was to attend CSEA’s Chapter President’s Workshop. I was informed that it would be an invaluable opportunity to increase my understanding of the depth of my new leadership role.

The jam-packed workshop agenda proceeded for six hours from 8 AM until 2 PM. Lunch, the only break, was served in the meeting room. The workshop covered many aspects of running a Chapter such as reporting finances, reading bylaws, compiling minutes and procedures for sending the information to the state office. We were told about tax returns and reimbursements.

And we were cautioned as to which fund raising events were possible and which were not. (Lotteries fell in the “not possible” category.) 

Each CSEA Committee Chair gave a presentation on their committee’s work at the state level and how the Chapters could be of support. Eleven presentations in all! They told us how this work affected members at the Chapter level. Then came information about CSEA’s annual events including workshops and seminars and instructions on how to submit award nominations and year-end reports. 

We left with an armful of materials and handouts including a calendar of state events, an 80-page manual on how to run a Chapter, brochures on running an effective meeting and using Parliamentary Procedure. Also included were forms to run evaluations of Board meetings and the guidelines for conducting Chapter business. 

We listened for four hours straight from those who ran the state society. Finally, after lunch and 24 agenda items, we reached agenda item 25E: “Chapter/Member Concerns That CSEA Needs to Know.” Finally the tables were turned. Finally, the state leadership was officially asking for our input and opinions. By that point, most of us were man-aging information overload and mentally exhausted. But we did our best. 

Every piece of information shared during that six-hour session was important. And I’m certain those involved in preparing it had all the best intentions. But I wondered, as I advanced in my leadership roles and observed the results, whether those attending the President's Workshop retained or followed much of what was shared. 

Does this approach to training your volunteer leaders sound somewhat familiar? Are you getting the results afterward that you need? Is this the most we can expect from members serving in volunteer roles?

I believe not. I believe there is a brighter future... for those who are willing to shift not only their actions but also their perspective. Let me offer insight as a volunteer leader, one who believes as strongly as you do of the power of these organizations to affect positive change.

The Learning Experience –Traditional Learning

My first career was in education with an emphasis on curriculum development and instruction. It allowed me an opportunity to observe, participate in and evaluate the design of the Chapter President's Workshop. Other than me, I’m not sure that anyone focused on how the day was constructed. The bulk of the time was spent delivering and imposing information rather than seeking information or generating dialogue. 

In graduate school, a significant part of my education, while studying to be a mathematics teacher, was dedicated to understanding learning theories – how students of any age learn. These theories don't simply apply to kids, adults learn in different ways as well. The most prevalent learning theory was commonly described as filling up “empty vessels.” Students are viewed as empty vessels, and the teacher’s job is to fill those vessels with the correct knowledge. The most popular instructional format was lecture. Since the students are empty vessels, this new knowledge will fill them up, and they will have learned something new. 

In my own education, the majority of my instruct-tors used this model of teaching, and I was one of the few students who responded successfully. But when I started graduate school, new research emerged. It showed that only approximately 1/3 of the students learned mathematics successfully via this format. That meant that 2/3 were not learning. 

Why? The main reason why this “empty vessel” learning theory fails is that the majority of students are not empty vessels. Nor are adults. Research now tells us that even newborns are not empty vessels! We all come into new situations with prior knowledge and prior experience. We are not “empty.” Rather, we are “full vessels,” each filled with experiences and a wide range of potential.

This is pivotal when thinking about leadership development in an association. Rather than approaching this critical function with the idea that members have little knowledge; consider what can be accomplished with the notion that members possess a great deal of knowledge. We have a unique opportunity to tap that which relates most to leading and governing and adapt it as needed for this special environment. But this adaptation requires a different learning theory.

Empowering Learners

Let’s talk about a different learning theory that acknowledges that we are complex human beings and not empty vessels. This theory is called constructivism. It states that students possess previous knowledge and experiences. A student’s brain is not empty, but is already filled with a series of “constructs” they have generated from the information and experiences to which they have been exposed. Students harbor both correctly constructed knowledge as well as misconceptions.
Students most often have had experiences which may block the learning of certain new knowledge. 

With constructivism, the whole landscape of learning changes. Imposing information in lecture form, while providing information, fails to make essential connections to what the student already knows – a key reason why behavior doesn’t change. 

How does constructivism relate to leadership development in associations?

Associations need to take into account that every member comes into the organization with prior knowledge and experience; including those who assume leadership roles.

They become part of a remarkable talent pool. Everyone in this community possesses skills, abilities, talents, and experiences waiting to be tapped and in some cases further cultivated.

No member is ever an empty vessel; each has individual and unique constructs. And yet, most approaches to leadership development treat members as empty vessels. Information is imposed. Hefty manuals are distributed. 

Volunteer leaders, like me, are asked to absorb too much material at too fast a rate without recognizing that we all process information in different ways -- we all learn at different rates and absorb information differently. It doesn’t mean the learning experience must be individualized. That would be unrealistic. It does mean that leadership development must become more than an event. And the learning opportunities that ensue must incorporate formats to support different learning preferences. 

A Change in Focus

Using the “empty vessel” learning theory and approach to leadership development is limiting. It forces current volunteer and staff leaders to focus solely on the body of knowledge – the information – that leaders need to know. Using this perspective, questions often asked include: 

  1. What do they need to know?
  2. How can it be presented?
  3. What is essential; what has become obsolete?
  4. What must be shared first; what comes later?
  5. What should be converted into print or digital materials to support them?
  6. How much time is available; how much information can be shared in that time frame?

These questions are all quite valid when developing leaders. But they are only part of the picture. They focus solely on the information to be presented; they fail to focus on what these individuals might already know or understand. And they do not focus on the individual’s ability to absorb and retain the information. 

With constructivism, the focus shifts to the participant, the person who is targeted for leadership. Those involved in leadership development must build a bridge that connects current knowledge to organizational knowledge. The focus is on helping emerging leaders clarify the difference between any previous settings and that within the association, dispelling any obstacles or insights that may reflect their construct but not the one they need to now embrace.

The goal is to have individuals add new knowledge to their current constructs, expanding and reconstructing those constructs. Those involved in leadership development – capacity building – recognize they are not just presenting new information about the organization and its operations, they are helping potential leaders rework their constructs. Doing so enables them to absorb and understand this information in ways that allow them to assume more productive behaviors. It also allows the organization to grow by garnering and incorporating the knowledge that the potential leaders already have and are now willing to share.

The remarkable thing about leadership development in associations is that it need not be an isolated event. It happens directly and indirectly, in formal and informal ways. Leadership development flourishes on the relationships that new and emerging leaders forge with:

… other existing volunteer and staff leaders.
… others involved in formal and informal leadership roles.
… members.
… the organization itself.

A capacity building approach to leadership development enables these relations to be nurtured in ways that not only ensure the organization’s stability but also allows it to advance in new and better ways. But to develop leadership in this way requires time and attention to grooming and channeling existing and potential skills and traits in a positive direction for both the individual and the collective.

A great deal of information and knowledge exists about how to foster and nurture relationships. Highly-productive relationships are dependent on the specific characteristics that participants in those relationships possess. Leaders are rarely born, they are cultivated. Associations offer a rare opportunity for individuals to develop their skills, abilities and talents in a safe environment. It often happens naturally because individuals are recognized for what they have to offer and encouraged to use it – whether existing or latent in nature. The organization then trains them in direct and indirect – formal and informal ways.  

A Capacity Building Approach to Leadership Development

Effective organizations recognize the need to tap each member’s skills, abilities and talents for leadership. Most relish the years when “natural” leaders emerge requiring little support. And lament during the lean years when those well-intentioned members who step forward fail to deliver the same level of leadership. Members serving in volunteer roles feel the same way. These highs and lows often complicate an association’s ability to govern effectively and challenge staff’s ability to manage productively. This up and down scenario need not be the reality for associations. 

Leaders of all kinds need and benefit from development. But it can’t happen in a day or over a week-end. No matter how much knowledge leaders bring to the table, they need time, practice and guidance to process the unique information of a specific association. And new leaders need to understand and be given opportunities to give time and guidance to others. Leadership development starts by seeing new leaders for who they are and for how they have put together the “constructs” of their world. 

Ultimately, it is up to the organization’s existing leadership (including staff and members serving in formal and informal leadership roles) to identify and cultivate emerging leaders so that they can engage and contribute productively. Rather than focusing on the event first, rather focus on the individuals; identifying those with potential, tapping their existing skills. Then, expand the analysis to measure the depth and breadth of their skills and potential collectively. This is the experience I sought as an incoming leader; it is the experience most members seek as leaders – consciously or unconsciously. It is the true essence of leadership development in associations for it identifies and empowers individual and collective capacity. 

“Building capacity” refers to the process of developing the full complement of leaders in an association, from members to staff to content specialists/suppliers. From an organization's viewpoint, building capacity among participants means three things: 

  1. the ongoing identification and recognition of current abilities and talents
  2. the utilization of those talents to further the organization’s goal and achieve its mission, and
  3. the cultivation of latent potential – abilities and talents – that exist enabling both the participant and the organization to grow.

Building capacity does not require every member to aspire to or serve in a formal leadership position. Yet, by building the capacity of all members, the organization benefits as these individuals are contributing in many direct and indirect ways – identifying and recruiting others to contribute their existing skills as well as coaching and mentoring them to strengthen their latent potential. This approach to leadership development can only occur through a culture dedicated to capacity building.

What Does Taking the Capacity Building Approach Look Like?

Helping members realize their full potential lies at the heart of what associations do. Every program, product and service is designed and delivered with that intention. Much of what associations do every day provides a venue to discover the vast potential that exists within the membership. The least obvious member can become the association’s next greatest and most memorable leader. Capacity building merely formalizes the many direct and indirect ways that leadership skills are forged within your organization. Changes and adaptations can and should be made incrementally. We hope that this article (and the assessment tool noted below) brings many existing activities to light – with solutions often requiring just a tweak to what is already being done – but with a different perspective. 

Leadership Capacity Assessment

In this article, we've focused attention on the less obvious and more personal and effective ways that leaders are trained. The Leadership Capacity Assessment (PDF provided by the Melos Institute) is a good way to begin evaluating the depth and breadth of your current or future leader-ship team. 

The next few articles that follow demonstrate how the constructivism learning theory plays a role in capacity building. Real-life stories will be shared highlighting more indirect ways that members’ talents were identified and cultivated. Specific interactions between established leaders, professional staff and potential leaders in different organizations will be revealed. You’ll see how the potential leaders wrestled with certain constructs about themselves and the organization. And you’ll learn how volunteer and staff leaders, over time, helped transform these constructs to build the capacity of the participant and ultimately of the organization. 

Little did I know my attendance at a dense and too long leadership workshop would ultimately expand my interest in volunteerism and leadership.  Or enable me to draw upon previous experiences to shape a new way to think about leadership development. One thing I do know, every association is filled with members like me who want to serve and are willing to contribute and eager to learn how best to do it.

. An Enrolled Agent is a federally licensed tax practitioner.

© copyright 2014 Raven Deerwater, Ph.D. Mendocino, California and Melos Institute Pacifica, California 


Raven Deerwater holds a doctorate in education from the University of Chicago and is an independent consultant on leadership development in nonprofit organizations. He is an enrolled agent and a research fellow for the Melos Institute. 

Contact: raven@taxpractitioner.com 

Trish Hudson, MPsSc is the President of the Melos Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit independent think tank dedicated to finding solutions to the systemic challenges affecting membership-based organizations. 

Contact: trish@melosinstitute.org

 Building-leadership and ...People in meeting looking up – both courtesy of BigStockPhoto.com
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A New Way To Think About Leadership Development © copyright 2014 Raven Deerwater, Ph.D. Mendocino, California and Melos Institute Pacifica, California 
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