When association leadership loses its way

Is it OK for a U.S. 501(c)(3) non-profit association to make large profits, pay its four top executives well over $1M per year, and yet do little for its members?

In an astonishing article, Professor Dorothy Vera Margaret Bishop, FRS FBA FMedSci, who is Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology and Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellow in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford shares an example of an association that’s guilty of all of the above.

“The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) makes humongous amounts of money from its journal and meetings, but spends very little on helping its members, while treating overseas researchers with indifference bordering on disdain.”
—Dorothy Vera Margaret Bishop, Has the Society for Neuroscience lost its way?

Why the SfN lost its way

Bishop’s article gives the financial details, also available from the association’s 2016 (latest) IRS Form 990. To summarize, the Society for Neuroscience:

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Aim to serve rather than please

Although I’m simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed by the thousands of books and videos about “leadership” pumped out every year, a recent quote struck a chord:

“You’ll do more good if you aim to serve more than you aim to please.”
S. Chris Edmonds

For context, watch this two-minute video:

While Chris focuses on the context of team leadership, I think that aiming to serve rather than please is also a useful rubric to keep in mind as a consultant. So here are three reasons why you should aim to serve, not please:

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Listening to the UPS guy

After dinner last night I heard a familiar sound — the growl of the UPS box truck driving up our 600′ rural driveway. I knew it was our regular driver, the guy who’s been delivering for years, because if he sees I’m in my home office he’ll stop and do a tight three-point turn outside the entrance, rather than driving past to reverse by the garage.

I heard the van door slide back and went to the door to meet the guy I’ll call Roger. Roger is tall and lanky, has a sweet smile and disposition, and is open to talk if the time is right. Over the years he’s met me hundreds of times in that doorway. Mostly, he smiles and hand over the delivery, I thank him and wish him a good night, and he jumps into his truck, finishes reversing and drives away. Once in a while, when the roads are bad, we talk about his day: how he’s handled the challenges of delivering along my rural town’s sixty miles of dirt roads plus the surrounding area.

For some reason I hadn’t seen Roger for a few weeks; the other drivers had been making deliveries. So I said, “Hey, you’re back!” as he strolled towards me, package in hand.

“Well, I’ve been off a lot; my mother just passed away,” he replied.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. I stood and looked at him.

“Well” he said…

…and he started to tell his story.

Roger talked about his mom. He stood facing sideways from me, with an occasional glance in my direction prompted by my occasional responses to what he was saying. Once in a while he’d swivel to face me, sharing something that was especially important. Then he went back to telling me about his frequent journeys down south to see her since she’d fallen and broke multiple bones in June, how his family had done their best to cope, and her eventual decline and death.

He told me about dealing with “picking up the pieces” now she was gone. About the last time he saw her in the hospital, when she was “all scrunched up” and seemed out of it, until he bent down and hugged her and told her “I love you mom” and she opened one eye and said “I love you too” “as clear as anything” and then closed her eye and “was out of it again”. He told me much more than I’ll share here.

Roger talked for over ten minutes, by far the longest conversation we’ve ever had. Now and again he edged away during our time together. But he couldn’t quite get himself to stop what he wanted or needed to say.

And that was fine with me. I was in no hurry, and he wanted to talk.

At the end I wished him well and he turned, got into his van, and motored off down my driveway.

It felt good to listen.

How to live your life

Two important truths from Stephen Jenkinson:

“…it’s the awareness of death — and not happiness or positivity or stoicism — that allows us to live fully in the time that we have.”
—Stephen Jenkinson in the 2008 documentary Griefwalker

and

“…live your life as someone who has an enduring obligation to that which has kept you alive.”
—Stephen Jenkinson, in an interview in The Sun, August 2015

Photo attribution: Flickr user x1klima