The Prometheus Paradox.
The mythological Greek god Prometheus may have be n the first
association executive. In a heroic effort to save the world, Prometheus
darted to heaven, stole fire from the gods. Returned to earth. His
gift of fire ensured human survival and marked the beginning of
civilization. In response, the gods chained Prometheus to a rock, where
an eagle daily devoured his liver. His liver was regenerated nightly so
that the punishment would be repeated eternally.
Prometheus (whose name means “he who foresees”) was
caught in a paradox. He knew that giving fire to the world would upset
his celestial board of directors. But the value of fire was of such
long-range importance, he was compelled to act, despite the knowledge
that it'd doom him to grief and destruction. He was a hero to some,
a villain to others.
Like Prometheus, association executives face a paradox. As leaders
and managers, association executives must both “do things
right”. “do the right things,”. A situation first
described by Henry Mitzberg in The Nature of Managerial Work.
Push and pull
Association executives encounter the Prometheus Paradox trying to
meet today’s member needs while steering a visionary course. The
association must deliver programs and services to meet current needs to
prevent dissatisfaction and loss of revenue. But to ensure a successful
future, the association must anticipate future trends and position
itself and its members accordingly. This tug-of-war between today’s
needs and tomorrow’s demands constantly pushes and pulls
Perhaps that's why member surveys have become an icon of the
times. Providing statistically reliable data, a survey can identify
member needs, allowing associations to respond with targeted programs.
This is “push”. Leadership: Member needs push leaders toward
But in the long term, associations don't thrive on surveys alone.
Association leaders know that what members want today may not be what
they'll want or need in the future. Visionary decisions lack the
comfort of member surveys. Visioning, futures studies, scenario writing,
and long-range strategic planning help outline a future course. This is
“pull”. Leadership: Leaders pull members toward a program or
position because of long-term benefits or anticipated needs.
Association executives are often the ones doing the pulling. Just
as Prometheus possessed the gift of prophesy, association executives
also have a unique advantage. With access to comprehensive information,
contact with diverse constituencies. Relationships with related
organizations, association executives are attuned to the big picture.
That perspective helps association executives anticipate needs before
members articulate them. But as Prometheus found, pull leadership is
For example, the 1990 Earth Day celebration gave many associations
the opportunity for pull leadership. Some association executives
admitted confidentially that members lacked enthusiasm for some
association activities in support of the environment. Member surveys
never mentioned a need to become environmentally active. But visionary
leaders saw the long-term benefits of such programs, despite short-term
antipathy from members.
As another example, several years ago one association began to
network with potential members in Europe. Ridiculed by some leading
members then, that action is now viewed as brilliant in the light of EC
’92 and other developments.
The politics of risk
The Prometheus Paradox is the conflict between push leadership and
pull leadership. Association leadership includes a responsibility to
anticipate the future. Yet the daily pressure to meet specialized member
needs is increasing. The more visionary association executives become,
the more conflict emerges between push and pull leadership. This paradox
intensifies with time.
An even riskier future appears to be in store for association
executives. The 1990 ASAE Think Tank on the future of associations found
that to succeed in the complex future of associations, executives will
need to take more risks.
In a future filled with more risks, how do association executives
maintain job security? How do they balance both push and pull
leadership? How do they manage with vision but gain commitment from
association volunteer leaders who are averse to risk?
The key is to manage the risk. Volunteer leaders may lack the
big-picture perspective necessary to provide or even appreciate pull
leadership. Association executives must share the view from their
unique vantage point. This perspective should go beyond the association
to include the industry or profession. To enhance understanding of the
big picture and manage the risk, a process of anticipatory management
can be developed. Such a process might include the following steps:
1. Present a workshop on the future at your association’s
annual conference and a keynote speech to the assembled attendees. This
effort will launch a study of the industry or profession.
2. Conduct focus groups with participants who are considered
knowledgeable about future issues in the industry or profession. These
small-group forums allow members to express their viewpoints in a
nonjudgmental way. Guided questions help identify trends and issues.
they draw out diverse thoughts and opinions. Summarize results in a
3. Use the focus group report to initiate what's called a Delphi
Panel. Experts, including staff, volunteers. Nonmembers, participate
as panelists. Pose written questions to panel members. The Delphi Panel,
through the mail, responds to the initial report. A Delphi Panel
facilitator reviews the written responses and identifies both consensus
and disagreement before responding with more finely detailed questions.
This process continues through two or three iterations until the
panel’s thinking is clearly outlined. The Delphi group’s
deliberations result in a second report.
4. Discuss the Delphi report at a symposium of association leaders.
A day of facilitated discussion can be compiled in a third report, which
consists of a series of alternative futures of multiple scenarios. Each
scenario identifies strategies for the association to pursue.
5. Deliver the final report in mon graph form at the
association’s next convention. It can be published and sold. The
futures monograph may be an attractive advertising opportunity, serving
as a useful reference guide for years to come.
The outcome of this process of anticipatory management is a
consensus-based vision of possible future scenarios. Scenarios may be
“preferable.”. Implications of each scenario outline
members’. Needs long before members articulate them.
How the future may affect the association and how the association
seeks to affect the future becomes more clear. The process also enhances
the partnership between staff and involved volunteers.
The goal is to have more people share a broader perspective of
future trends and the implications of those trends to moderate the risks
of pull leadership. Frequently, members come to view visionary efforts
as being as important as their immediate needs.
A responsibility to the future
Prometheus endured torture because he felt a responsibility to the
future. Ultimately, he triumphed over suffering because he believed in
the righteousness of his cause. Association executives, modern
Promethians, can also succeed when faced with push and pull leadership.
By involving volunteer leadership and producing a consensus about
potential future developments with continuing reliable assessments of
current member needs, associations can achieve a balance between push
and pull leadership. The Prometheus Paradox, difficult though it may be,
can be managed.
Gary A. LaBranche, CAE, is vice president and director of
association consulting for Lawrence-Leiter and Company, Kansas City,
Missouri. Your thoughts...
The Prometheus Paradox.
The Prometheus Paradox.
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