Monday, May 6, 2013

If the Future is a Painting, Who's the Painter?

I've been blogging lately about what it takes to lead an organization in a new direction. I don't pretend to be an expert in this area. My blog posts are reflections of the thoughts I'm having as I try to lead my own organization through the turbulent waters of change. 

If you accept this premise of one of my previous posts, that we can only see the destination by moving towards it, then it seems to me that one of the pivotal responsibilities of the leader is not to present the clearest possible picture of the future, but to define for the organization the set of terms and conditions on which the future picture will be created.

Imagine that the future is a painting. In that analogy, the leader is not the painter. The leader supplies the paints and brushes that the organization will use to paint the picture. The leader also must clarify what kind of painting is to be made. Landscape or portrait? Abstract or realism? People must understand and embrace a leader's vision, but beyond that, the organization itself must do the work of deciding what will be made and how the paint will be put on the canvas.

Why? Because the myth of the heroic leader is exactly that--a myth. A single individual can have a vision, and that person can stay slavishly faithful to that vision, pushing everyone and aligning all resources towards its unalterable execution, but that person is not a leader--at least not the kind of leader today's organizations need. The painting analogy is apt because that person is actually an artist--perhaps even a great one--and most great artists never produce anything that is appreciated in their lifetimes.

If you are going to create something that is useful and appreciated today you have to bring other people into the creative process. In the world of associations that means members--because they are the consumers whose needs you are trying to satisfy. But it also means staff people--because they are the foundation upon which the future vision must be sustained. The individual leader can create something great in a single burst of passion and energy, but no individual can offer that passion and energy in the sustainable fashion that is necessary to keep the program alive and adapting for years to come.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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