Voluntary Leadership

While attending a conference several years ago, I listened to a speaker offer interesting explanations of various types of leadership. While his talk was directed toward non-profits, he could just as easily have been speaking to small business owners.

The first type of leadership he described used sports teams as an example. Team sports typically have a captain of the team; usually someone who has earned the position through hard work and exemplary performance. If we’re playing on the team, we know to follow the directions of the captain, or we won’t be long for the playing field. We’ll be standing on the sidelines, instead. The speaker referred to this as leading by position.

This type of leadership is similar to that of a start-up or smaller business. The founder has usually performed all the tasks necessary to launch the company, and he’s done them well enough that the company has survived, grown, and now needs to employ others. It’s only natural that the early employees would respect the founder’s position because he’s “been there, done that.”

The next type of leadership was leading by rank. Here, the speaker used the military to make his point. In the military, you follow leaders when commanded to do so, because that’s part of the agreement you signed up for. If you don’t, you’re going to have a very bad day. And when you’re in combat, you follow orders because people’s lives may depend on it. When bullets are flying, discussion time shrinks.

Leadership by rank applies more to multi-generational, family businesses than many of us would care to admit.

The next leadership style had to do with leading by title. Here, business was used as the framework example. We follow orders in business because the person we report to has a title. The bigger the business, the more people with titles.

The last example, voluntary leadership, was the one that stood out most for me, as its authority is based on shared values. For this, trade associations were used as the example. People generally participate in trade associations because they share a common interest or set of values – not for six-figure salaries or extravagant perks.

In associations, the volunteer members vote with their feet—as soon as a member feels their interests are no longer being served, or when the direction veers away from their core values, they leave the association.

When you cut through the titles, positions, and hierarchy that exist in most businesses, I think the same can be said for any company. The people who work for us are really volunteers. The idea of having to work in a specific job or company went out the window years ago … or certainly when the full-employment labor market arrived.

Business leadership, and our ability to attract and keep talented people, has more to do with influence that it does with authority, rank, or title. Influence has everything to do with shared values, common purpose, and looking out for each other’s interests. If we’re serious about building a winning company in a hyper-competitive employment market, then we need to seriously consider the role that shared values plays in attracting and keeping top talent, and rely less on our title, rank, or position.

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