Reconnaissance: Leadership in Uncertain Times

A 349Kb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

During the recent ACSM Annual Convention at the Caribe Royale Resort in Orlando, I attended the ACSM Awards Ceremony and NSPS 25th Anniversary celebration. While taking in this standing-room-only event attended by several hundred enthusiastic former, current and future leaders, I reflected on the state of leadership in our professional organizations.

Please note that this column is not in the least intended to be an indictment of our leaders or their efforts, but rather an attempt to provoke some innovative thought and suggest the need for a paradigm shift.

As is the case with many national organizations, the member organizations of ACSM are experiencing declining membership and a lack of people interested in running for office. Bylaws may even be disregarded where they call for at least two candidates, yet only one can be recruited. In some cases, former officers and directors find themselves recycled through the chairs — in part because other qualified candidates are not willing to serve, or even run. Encouragingly, the elected officers and directors and the various committee and board members are dedicated, enthusiastic and qualified. This bodes well for the core of our organizations — but where are the members? Who is it that these people are leading and what does that say about the future of our organizations?

When asked about joining, most potential members respond that they simply do not see the benefit. I tend to believe that the "no benefit" comment is either an excuse or diversion; there is something deeper at work. Even though the numerous and substantive member benefits are published and broadcast in a wide variety of ways, there seems to be nothing that resonates in the hearts and minds of those potential members.

In her new book Finding Our Way — Leadership in Uncertain Times, author Margaret "Meg" Wheatley writes, "In human communities, the conditions of freedom and connectedness are kept vibrant by focusing on what’s going on in the heart of the community. . . What called us together? What did we believe was possible together that was not possible alone? What did we hope to bring forth by linking with others?"

As I reflect on her words, I wonder if our leaders should be considering what our professional communities really need in a broader sense? Should we revisit the basic reasons that our organizations were formed? What did our founders think "was possible together that was not possible alone?" While reflecting on those questions it is important that we recognize the answers may be different today than they were when our organizations were formed.

In the past, our organizations have been scarred by disputes over what I believe were "tactics" in what should have been the larger work of the organization. What should the structure of the organization be? What should our organization look like? Who should be a part of it? Who should our leaders be? What should our policies be? These battles had long-term consequences that probably linger yet today.

Yet Wheatley says, "Belonging together is defined by a shared sense of purpose, not by shared beliefs about specific behaviors." It is too easy to get bogged down — expending extraordinary amounts of energy on beliefs and behaviors rather than rallying around what she calls a "renewed and clear sense of collective purpose." This call for purpose "attracts individuals but does not require them to shed their uniqueness." This concept is critically important in an organization such as ACSM because it comprises such a wide variety of organizations, disciplines, subdisciplines and beliefs. We cannot and should not ask individuals, or even the individual organizations amongst us, to give up their individuality as a condition of participation.

The dynamic encouraged in an organization based on shared purpose, rather than shared behaviors and beliefs, is "tinkering." Wheatley says it can cause unprecedented "messiness" in the organization, but to promote conformity in the process will kill the creativity that is desperately needed.

After September 11, 2001 when air traffic controllers miraculously cleared the skies of some 4,500 airplanes in a matter of a couple of hours, the FAA decided it needed to capture that feat in new procedures. But the idea was scrapped — that extraordinary success was a collection of intuitive collaborations and pure dedication. Trying to formalize that process would constrain the creativity and spontaneity that made it work in the first place!

In the "tinkering" process, we find people working together — in what Wheatley calls "communities of service" — on solutions to problems based on their own experiences. These communities of service are not formal committees; formality tends to gut creativity and discourage the spontaneity of idea generation. In the right environment — in a healthy organization that promotes diversity of thinking — communities of service form naturally as people with common problems come together to dialogue and share. Almost always in diverse organizations, the solutions to problems are already being practiced somewhere, but unless we encourage this coming together, we will not find them!

Wheatley says people need to be free to create and contribute; in such an environment they will share stories and experiences. Solutions develop and rather than being "imposed" on the organization, when everyone recognizes the constancy of purpose they will be picked up on, modified situationally and used to advantage.

When it took years for the adverse conditions that we find ourselves in to develop, we cannot expect a quick fix. Wheatley suggests that meaningful change in an organization will take three to five years. This seems impossibly long, so we had better get started! But, what is the prescription?

Solutions come from people, and if we want people to create those solutions we must recognize that participation is not a choice. With everyone involved, we don’t need to sell them anything — they will create the future. We need to promote and develop healthy relationships with colleagues. Then they will feel invited to engage and think together. This is necessary because none of us will, on our own, view events and situations the same way.

How do we convince people to get involved in this important work? Wheatley suggests that nothing motivates people more than meaning. If we can agree upon and articulate the greater purpose of our organizations (being the reasons we have come together), and if those reasons are meaningful and truly serve our professions, and if we demonstrate a commitment to promoting the sharing of ideas and experiences, then perhaps we will see memberships and participation start to grow again.

Potential members will stop thinking about the "benefits" of belonging. Rather, they will want to participate and share experiences and ideas when they see the possibilities inherent in working together to address the basic purposes of their organizations.

We do not have to agree with each other in order to think well together, Wheatley says. We do not need to be joined at the head, only at the heart. Let’s engage in serving the greater good of our professions by focusing on purpose, not process.

Gary Kent is Director, Integrated Services at The Schneider Corporation in Indianapolis. He is past-president of ACSM and chairs the ALTA/ACSM Committee for NSPS and the Liaison Committee for ALTA. He is on the Indiana Board of Registration and lectures both locally and nationally.

A 349Kb PDF of t
his article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE 

About the Author

Gary Kent, PS

Gary Kent has been a professional surveyor with Schneider Geomatics since 1983 and is also owner of Meridian Land Consulting, LLC. He has chaired the joint ALTA/NSPS Committee on the Land Title Survey standards since 1995. He also sits on the Indiana State Board of Registration and lectures nationally.
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