October 1, 2017
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Dudley Reynolds TESOL International Association, Past President

It’s never easy being a “has-been.” I know, for I am in the category of “he has been TESOL President.” For associations, has-beens can become a liability, but they don’t have to.

One of the most crucial policies any association can formulate is a leadership succession plan. Such a plan provides for a regular turn-over of roles to new people, which in turn encourages members to volunteer knowing that there will always be new opportunities where they can grow and do more. A succession plan also outlines an automatic process for what will happen if a leader cannot fulfill their responsibilities for whatever reason. In a time of crisis, no one will have to figure out what to do.

Many people further argue that constant turnover keeps an association vibrant and growing. While I am wary of change for change’s sake, I agree that associations should never be the work of one person, or even one generation of people. By definition, the power of associations is the power of a collective group – they embody what can happen when multiple heads--and bodies--associate. In language teaching associations, our message and our ability to act is strongest when we bring together prospective and practicing teachers, teacher educators, university-based researchers, program administrators, ministry officials, and materials providers. With this many perspectives in the room, we can guarantee that there will be disagreement, which in turn should lead to innovation and solutions that meet the needs of the most stakeholders. But after a while, even if we are coming from different places, we get to know each other and we get comfortable. We replicate last year’s consensus. Succession plans keep us from getting comfortable and avoiding the difficult discussions.

This means that associations need their leaders to move out and on. If a leader stays around too long, the results can be very detrimental. Even when a leader has developed a very effective process for planning the convention, running a training program, or involving sponsors; there is no guarantee that this process will always be effective. Fresh eyes help everything. Moreover, if members begin to assume that this person will always be there to do a certain job, no one else bothers to learn how to do it and the leader becomes irreplaceable—never a good thing. Finally, we should also be concerned about the association’s identity. Associations carry weight when they are perceived as the collective voice of their members, not the followers of a person.

Does this mean therefore that we has-beens should just politely disappear? I think not. Instead, we should think carefully about what our value can be for the association.

First, we will very naturally serve as the association’s historians. There will always be a need to know why a change was made, what the conditions were that prompted it, and perspective on whether those conditions still exist. We can comment on whether policies implemented under our leadership are achieving their intended goals or need a new approach. We may also be called upon to maintain or strengthen connections with a ministry or sponsor that were made during our leadership.

Second, associations depend on their members to share their expertise with each other as a way of developing the whole community and the field. As past leaders, we have expertise in leadership. We should seek out ways to contribute to the development of leadership skills within the association. We can offer to mentor new members to the field or even set up a more formal mentoring program. TESOL International Association benefits every year from the former leaders who contribute their time to its Leadership Mentoring Program. We should also think about how to package what we have learned in the form of conference presentations or newsletter articles. And when the association’s current leaders hit a roadblock or a crisis, we need to be ready to provide a listening ear. We may not have a solution, but we can empathize.

Finally, as past leaders we are ready to take on special tasks or fill interim roles. If the task is delicate, we may have a deeper understanding than most of what makes it delicate. If it is time intensive, we may have fewer competing responsibilities. If it requires background knowledge, we may already have that. In short, our experience will always be a resource that the association and its leaders can draw on when they need to.

The trick, however, is to wait to be asked to contribute and to remember that our role now is different. I vividly remember my first experience as a chair of a group. I was certain that everyone around me secretly thought I was too young and too inexperienced. I remember leaving meetings and thinking I probably should not have talked as much as I did. I remember writing newsletter contributions and wondering if anyone would even read them. For each of these memories, I am eternally grateful to the has-beens before me who thanked me for the job I was doing and encouraged me to continue on.

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October 2017