Volunteer Leadership

If we’re learning nothing else from the current employment market, we’re learning that people no longer have to work. They choose to work. More specifically, they choose to work at places they enjoy, with people they enjoy, doing work they both enjoy and that fulfills them. In many ways, they’re volunteering their time.

For the most part, the idea of having to work in a specific job at a specific company doing work that is only marginally engaging went out the window about the same time as electric typewriters and fax machines. If there were any lingering vestiges of those bygone days, they left with the advent of our current free agent workforce.

Years ago, I attended a leadership conference at the invitation of a trade association of which I was a member. The main speaker on that particular day offered some interesting perspectives on how associations could attract and engage volunteers using various leadership models. His words are remarkably pertinent to the challenges for-profit businesses are facing with today’s employment market.

He used sports as an example for the first type of leadership he explained. Team sports typically have a captain of the team. Usually, this captain has earned the position through hard work and exemplary performance. Anyone playing on the team needs to follow the directions of the captain. If they don’t, they won’t be long for the playing field. Instead, they’ll be riding the pine on the sidelines. He referred to this type of leadership as leading by position. This leader is followed because they’ve “been there, done that.”

Next, the speaker talked about leading by rank, using the military to make his point. In the military people follow leaders because they’re commanded to do so. In non-combat situations they know if they don’t follow orders, they’re going to be disciplined. In combat they follow orders knowing people’s lives may depend on it. Usually there’s not much discussion when a directive is given. Orders are followed … or else.

The next leadership style talked about had to do with leading by title. Here he used business as the framework, explaining people follow the direction of those who hold organizational titles: Director of this, VP of that, Manager.

The last example of leadership is the one that stood out most to me, as its basis of authority is the shared values of the organization. Trade associations were used as an example. In these associations people participate because they share a common interest (the reason the association exists) or a set of common values.

In volunteer associations the members vote with their feet. There are no six-figure salaries or extravagant perks that hold them in place. As soon as a member feels their interests are no longer being served, or when the direction of the association veers away from their core values, they’ll leave that organization. This is equal to what we’re currently seeing in business as we struggle to attract and keep talented people.

Although we would be remiss if we didn’t touch on the role compensation plays in today’s business climate, it only accounts for so much in our current hiring and retention efforts. In many ways the people who work for us are really volunteers. And to paraphrase leadership guru Ken Blanchard, they will stay with our organization or leave because of our influence, not our authority.

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