Get State info

How to Identify Leadership Potential in Your Ranks

By Heather Kerrigan | Feb 14, 2019

To ensure that the union remains effective and responsive to constituent needs, it's important to continually consider the leadership potential of your members. Identifying individuals with the qualities necessary to take on a leadership role puts the union on steady footing to fill vacancies and allows time to prepare candidates before a leadership opportunity opens.

 How to Maintain Strong, Effective Leadership

 The board and other union officers have a number of tasks to juggle, including requisite duties like negotiating collective bargaining agreements and handling grievances. But although these responsibilities are vital to the health of the organization, union leadership duties extend far beyond the administrative day-to-day. A potential leader should also be equipped to handle the ever-changing needs of the union's membership — what the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSME) calls "ought-to-dos," as opposed to "got-to-dos."

 These "ought-to-dos" are the tasks that can't be easily ticked off a checklist at the end of a meeting. They're bigger-picture, and they generally revolve around nurturing an engaged community rather than acting solely as an administrator. These duties include creating a communication structure, encouraging members to get involved with union activities, educating members and organizing nonmembers. To ensure that the union remains a strong force for its membership, it's important to find the right individuals who are ready to step into these challenges and who best represent their peers.

 Which Skills to Search For

 Leaders bring many skills to the table, but there are five core values that an effective union leader will embody.

  1.  Communication. Strong communication is key to increasing member participation and helping everyone feel supported. A good communicator is more than just someone who can get a message across, though. Look for members who seek out opportunities to gather input from others and who can present information in a compelling way.
  2.  Passion and commitment. The best leaders are those who constantly work to exceed expectations in ways that benefit not just themselves but the organization as a whole. They're team players who are ready to roll up their sleeves and make the union stronger, in good times and in bad.
  3.  Confidence. Union leaders must trust that the decisions they make and the actions they take on behalf of the membership are right. Not all decisions will be popular, and not every grievance will end in a win, but leaders must be confident in the work they do.
  4.  Creativity. A union is faced with a variety of challenges, and some will require out-of-the box solutions. Leaders should always be prepared to develop and consider new ideas.
  5.  Empathy. Members might find themselves coming to the board at a low point in their career or personal life. They may need help finding health or mental care, addressing a concern with a supervisor or understanding their workplace rights. It's important that those serving in leadership roles can empathize with their situation and work with members to find solutions.

How to Begin Recognizing Potential Leaders

 You may think you've already spotted your most effective leaders, but don't be so sure without a closer look. Some members who possess the qualities of an effective leader work quietly behind the scenes and might never catch the eye of the board. When trying to identify leaders among your membership, don't just go after the most obvious choices. Consider members who might not necessarily put themselves on your radar and think about how they would do in various leadership positions. 

Your search doesn't have to just happen at your desk, in your head or on a piece of paper, either. Talk to members about their colleagues, conduct an observation on a job site or engage with members during union activities. It's also important to pay careful attention to members who frequent union events. Look for anyone who appears to be a union cheerleader and who recruits their colleagues to join union activities. Enthusiasm doesn't necessarily translate into good leadership, but it's a start. The key is to focus on potential instead of performance alone. If a member has an interest in learning, helping others and influencing the union's activities, that person can grow into a leader.

 The ultimate benefit of identifying and cultivating leaders can be significant for the board, especially when coupled with programs that help these individuals learn how best to support the union and its members. Don't wait for a pressing need to search for talent — constantly look for members with the potential to take charge.


Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather also blogs for two government-focused publications, GovLoop and NEOGOV, covering issues of importance to federal employees. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.