Shrinking travel budgets and the availability of online training have conspired against today's professional associations, the typical first-victims of operational austerity.  Public institutions eager to appease their elected leaders are especially quick to freeze travel during challenging economic times.  This, however, may be a grave mistake.  Why? Because there are hidden, undisclosed benefits to membership associations that are worthy not only of discussion, but of careful consideration by corporate and governmental executives trying to save a buck.  

Gatherings of association members are where leaders are born.  They are among the very best proving grounds for prospective leaders to develop and refine the social skills they will need to perform effectively at the next level.  The peer-to-peer interactions they experience help stir a delicate blend of personal and professional awareness that eventually blossom into a comprehensive set of interpersonal talents.  And because these interactions occur among a diverse body of colleagues within a relevant professional context, they tend to facilitate the expansion of leadership acumen while deepening one's professional intelligence.  It is a learning environment that is unlike any other.

All organizations and industries depend on effective leadership to ensure a secure future.  Yet when leaders lack social skills, which is remarkably common in scientific and technical fields, they eventually find themselves unable to resolve conflicts or defend unpopular decisions - things that all leaders must do from time to time.  Then, because of the resulting awkwardness and lack of confidence, they avoid conflict and make only those decisions that are likely to please the most people.  In the short term, they succeed in avoiding complex situations requiring the interpersonal and communication skills they lack.  In the long term, they destabilize their organizational cultures, halt progress, and erode the trust that others have in their authority.

In my coaching practice, among the most common complaints I hear from my clients is "I just have a hard time getting people to trust me."  And, usually, the problem can be traced back to insufficient social experience.  But this is a challenge that can be overcome with the help of today's membership associations if we give our best and brightest an opportunity to interact with peers in a rich, professional environment. And if there are suspicions that the expense may not be worth the time and money, then attendees should be held accountable for ensuring that the value justifies the cost - yet another handy leadership skill.

Just as the value of membership associations must be appreciated, these same associations should recognize and celebrate the opportunity they have to develop future leaders.  The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors, for example, is a vibrant and active community of forensic science leaders - most of whom are former scientists with little formal training in emotional intelligence or social awareness. Yet, for decades, ASCLD has held strongly to a consistent message that promotes the refinement of leadership talent and encourages peer-to-peer interactions as a way to nurture professional development. It also runs a leadership academy where current and future members gather for intensive managerial training. 

It is short-sided to dismiss the importance of membership associations in developing people, teams, and organizations.  Organizations need leaders.  Leaders need social skills. Social skills require practice.  

Today's professional associations have much to offer.  But among their most important contributions is the opportunity they provide aspiring leaders to get along with other people, and to do so with confidence.