Defining the Role of the CEO in Navigating Divergent Beliefs

Navigating Divergent Beliefs March 19, 2024 By: Kristi Donovan, CAE and Patrick Glaser

Association executives face the daunting task of managing divergent beliefs among stakeholders when it comes to today’s challenging global issues. We provide a framework for leaders to skillfully balance listening, facilitating, and protecting their organizations while fostering unity in a polarized landscape.

Economic uncertainty, inequality, climate change and civil unrest. These are just a sample of the long-term trends on the horizon facing associations, and they are often accompanied by divergent, or opposing, beliefs held by members, stakeholders, and association staff. 

Divergent belief systems represent fundamental differences in how individuals view, understand, and perceive important issues. These differences in beliefs go beyond simple and constructive differences of opinion in that they are highly emotionally charged, tend to be inflexible (i.e., individuals are unlikely to change their position), and are oftentimes connected to a political or social identity. They may also be rooted in different interpretations of fact. 

Association CEOs, boards, and staff members want to do the “right thing” when it comes to addressing these big problems, but knowing exactly what that is is becoming more challenging.

What Is the Role of Association Leaders in Navigating Opposing Beliefs? 

Association executives are responsible for leading both their organizational and people strategies. Association CEOs must be strong listeners, facilitators, and protectors of their organizations. However, listening, facilitating, and protecting requires a more thoughtful, intentional, and nuanced approach when dealing with divergent belief systems. 

Following research conducted across ASAE’s CEO community, participants in the ASAE Association Insights Center (AIC) recently contemplated and analyzed their individual and collective experiences as CEOs in relation to divergent beliefs. The research and their synthesis surfaced the fundamental roles of CEOs when dealing with divergent belief systems: listen, facilitate, assess, protect, and act. 

These challenging times will continue and become increasingly frequent, and association leaders must find confidence in their ability to not only lead but use these points of tension as an opportunity to build stronger communities. The model for association leaders isn't necessarily to react or solve the issue but rather to provide space for their stakeholders to voice and unpack their point of view while building strength as a united field. CEOs can play that role by following the framework below.


Listen. Take care to listen deeply and ensure stakeholders feel heard.

  • Gather broad perspectives and hear all sides. Identify and avoid biases that could impact decisions. 
  • Give everyone a voice and don’t fear debate. Remind stakeholders that this is the purpose of an association.
  • Don’t rush things; don’t react immediately.
  • Gather accurate information from members, staff, and experts to inform the board.
  • Use information to pre-identify compelling issues and support rapid decision-making for when to take a stance.

Facilitate. Use a consistent, transparent, orderly, and defensible process to hear all sides on relevant issues. 

  • Be the objective, dispassionate facilitator who provides a structure to hear from all sides in the form of respectful, solutions-oriented conversation.
  • Discuss only issues that are relevant and critical to the association. 
  • Ensure a consistent approach, and report outcomes.
  • Work with the board to determine the “language that will be used.” 

Assess the rationale. Be the voice that reflects and reframes the issues back to the mission, vision, values, and strategy of the organization.

  • Ensure that the mission of the association is at the core of the conversation while balancing differing opinions.
  • Remind the board how the conversation connects to the mission, vision, values, and strategy of the association.
  • Remind the board that its duty is to the organization (not their emotions).
  • Keep the discussion relevant to the association.

Protect the organization. Navigate the necessity of the conversation, determine the need to take action or not, and provide the information needed for the board to take action—always with the organization’s best interests, mission, and strategy in mind.

  • Defend the association against untrue accusations.
  • Be an invisible influencer who reframes the conversation to the association's mission and values.
  • Do not act or adopt formal positions unless it is an issue critical to the association and in line with the association’s best interests and strategy.
  • Balance business considerations with emotional considerations. Weigh the pros and cons of action and inaction.
  • Bring information to the board, including outside facilitator and expert advice and assistance of legal counsel, as necessary.

Act. Steer through uncertainty with clear intention and communication.

  • Taking action involves identifying how you will address the issue in light of your association’s mission, vision, and values.
  • Engage and educate all levels of staff in messaging to assure consistency and clarity.
  • Acknowledge and communicate the breadth of engagement on the issue.
  • Reflect on the consistency of decisions made on this issue and those preceding.
  • Communicate decisions clearly.

Understanding the intricacies of each part of the framework can help guide and navigate your responses to the complexities of divergent belief systems. Find the full resource for managing divergent beliefs at

Interested in becoming a part of this just-in-time research designed to address the toughest issues you are facing right now? ASAE’s Association Insights Center is a community of experts collaborating to face the increasingly complex environment and challenges ahead. In partnership with McKinley Advisors, the AIC provides critical, on-demand intelligence and tools to support association CEOs as they face the difficult decisions yet to come. Join us as we embark on our third year of research.

Kristi Donovan, CAE

Kristi Donovan is a practice director on the strategy and innovation team at McKinley Advisors. She joined McKinley with more than 20 years of experience working in professional and trade associations.

Patrick Glaser

Patrick Glaser is McKinley’s chief practice officer. He has an extensive background in marketing research as well as association management. Prior to joining McKinley, Patrick spent five years leading internal and public release research for the Marketing Research Association.