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Friday, September 21, 2007

Role and Voice of Community Leaders - Your Input Needed

Based on the post He Had a Bad Day, Mark Oehlert, Heidi Fisk and I have had an email conversation that raises an interesting broader questions around the role, voice and communication norms of people who are the leaders / organizers of groups like the eLearningGuild.

  • Should they try to stay behind the scenes and put members out in front?
  • Should they have a strong voice and opinion that champions approaches or direction for the members?
  • Do they need to remain neutral?
  • How can they avoid abusing high profile, influential positions?
  • When they have valuable resources that are free, requires membership, or for fee that could be of value to someone who posts a question, what's appropriate? Should they point people to it? Should they sit back and hope someone else does?
Certainly, if you look at the eLearningGuild, Masie, ASTD, VNU, Brandon Hall, etc., you will find very different approaches taken by the leaders of each. They clearly have different answers to these questions. But, based on the conversation with Heidi, I know they must struggle with this question.

Mark, Heidi and I have shared our opinions on this via email, but I'm very curious to hear what you think about this issue.

Please take a minute or two to share your thoughts in the comments section (or in a blog post).


Anonymous said...

That's a great question. I look to an organization's leaders and representatives to help facilitate discussion and encourage progress in our field, no matter what it takes. It's ok for them to have opinions, as long as they're willing to openly debate their stance.

And the more contact I can have with them, the better. (You're a great example, Tony. I feel like I can drop you a note any time.) If the leaders and representatives lurk behind closed doors and try to influence the community, I think people may question their motives (ahem, $$). Now, the question is, how do you tie everything back to the organization? I think the leaders, by having more direct contact with the organization's members, can ultimately come up with better resources, events, ideas, etc., for the organization and its members.

Tom Haskins said...

When coaching leaders, I advise them to be strong advocates for process, but to avoid taking positional stances in a debate. Their effect will be positive if the insist on each member's right to speak their mind, dissent from a consensus, explore hypothetical possibilities and seek a following. Their effect will be negative if they use the power and rank to take sides, thwart opposing views, demand conformity, or rush to judgment. A leader ought to create and defend the container, but not provide the contents for difficult issues.

Clark said...

Tony, great and difficult question. To me it's clear some do abuse the position. I want to say that we expect the leaders to do just that, lead. But with the clear indication of when their level of confidence, their assumptions, their uncertainties, and certainly their willingness to debate.

It's fun, in fact, when you can get two leaders from opposite camps to engage in spirited, but respectful, discourse. Educational, too.

They're people, they're expected to have opinions. But from a position of leadership, they better be very transparent, and above the taint of any corruption (I respect when people put disclaimers on their comments, and try to do the same; I come from an academic background where integrity matters, as you do). Like we wish our politicians would follow, eh?

So, they're experts, they're going to have opinions, but they ought to expose what's documented fact, what's well considered opinion, and what's pure conjecture.

I'll slightly disagree with Tom (consistent with the 'crucial conversations' position). When it's time for debate, an 'expert' ought to facilitate and guide, but there're times when an expert has to state an opinion. But I'll rabidly agree with him that they should not "use the power and rank to take sides, thwart opposing views, demand conformity, or rush to judgment". But there are times when a leader should "provide the content for difficult issues".

Karl Kapp said...


I have to say that I have different expectations for different professional groups and their associated leaders. When a group is led by a single person (i.e. the name of the person is the name of the organization), I expect that one person's opinion to be the dominate view point within that organization...and that is usually the case.

Nothing wrong with that since that is my expectation, they focus on their products, their books and their ideas... so I go to those groups to hear ideas and thoughts influenced by that person knowing the source and weighing my reactions appropriately. So for those groups, the leader needs to remain strong, visible, out in front and maintaining a strong opinion.

For groups like ASTD, ISPI, SHRM which are "societies" or social networks of like-minded professionals, I expect that their leaders will step back a little and let the membership have more of a voice. So, they need to create opportunities for members to shine, have input into the field and create ideas and thoughts that are focused more on the field than the individuals leading the group.

Of course Tony Bingham of ASTD has a strong leadership position and has even used his position to help sell his book about presenting Learning to CEOs...I'm a little less comfortable about that in terms of his using his influence to help promote the book or his access to help write the book. I think groups like ASTD should be more member focused and less ASTD-leader focused. The leadership should work more in the background to allow the thoughts of individual members or companies within the society come to the forefront.

A group like eLearning Guild, to me has a split personnality. It is built around strong individuals within the field who have a position within the Guild but also within the field, I expect those folks to assume a more visable role within the field and within the Guild. I think the guild does a great job of pulling in many leaders of the field to contribute to the "good of the cause." The leaders of the guild promote the field, themselves and the guild, I find nothing wrong with that.

So my expectations are different depending upon the group, its origin, its motivations and my idea of what the group should be doing to help the field.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with Karl, that we have different expectations depending on the nature of the organisation. When a group is led by a single person, I would expect, and therefore not object to, resources being suggested that need to be purchased. However, on a site that is more of a 'social or professional' network, I would not like to see the leaders promoting resources that provide financial benefit to themselves. In most cases I would lose quite a bit of faith in leaders who seemed to be advancing their own material in that way.

Unknown said...

So far, Tony, all the comments on this post have come from experts and leaders. As a grad student relatively new to eLearning, I'd like to echo Clark Quinn's statement that industry leaders had better be transparent and differentiate between opinion and data.

In any field, those who have been in it for a while have generally acquired some perspective. Those who are new to it are just searching through the vast volumes of information out there to find something solid. When we see ASTD, eLearningGuild or another organization that we have heard of and recognize as credible, we have a natural tendency to extend that trust to the organization's leadership. Only by being transparent can leaders avoid abusing that trust.

Anonymous said...

For me, this is starting to venture into the same territory as my wrestling with the boundaries between myself as an individual and myself as corporate employee in my online persona. It also faces some of the same challenges as organisational blogging policies.

We are seeing the boundaries disappear. To what extent is the head of an influential organisation blogging as the head of his/her organisation and to what extent as a person? Where is the line between those two? Does one rise to that position only to be robbed of the right to personal expression?

I think to a large extent, just as the individual user should check the reliability of content online, they need to exercise their judgement in this instance. Yes, it would be ideal if there were transparency, but we would be well advised always to be sensible because the web is inhabited by flawed human beings who aren't always 100% ethical.