I have had most of my early leadership leading employees contracted to undertake specific roles, achieve specific shared objectives, and are paid for that. This, as much as there are definite teething issues in such leaders, is possibly a much fair leadership role. The employees and you as a leader have something to lose for non-performance and not achieving the intended goals. The repercussions could range from poor performance rating, lack of remuneration increment, lack of commissions and worse termination of employment contract due to persistent non-performance. These repercussions also drive employees and their leaders to strive for something and attempt to achieve their shared goals.
However, this is different when leading volunteers. It takes a lot of effort and influence for the leader to implant in the volunteers’ hearts and minds the value of the shared goals and the importance of striving to attain the intended outcome. Ideally, the volunteers may have no tied motivation towards the outcome. The volunteers are not on contractual terms. The leader has no power to hold anything against them. The leader cannot punish the volunteers. The volunteers are not obligated in any way to put in their optimal efforts and resources towards the attainment of the intended goals. This makes the dynamics of leading volunteers different and therefore requires some enhanced leadership capabilities and competencies to align and achieve an exceptional outcome with volunteers.
In the last three years, I have successfully run various programs with volunteers and am currently involved in various leadership avenues with a majority of my constituents as volunteers. Over the last 5 years, I have been heavily involved in various leadership platforms where my primary constituents are volunteers and this has enabled me to Unlearn and re-learn how to effectively lead volunteers to successfully achieve the desired goals. My unlearning and re-learning journey was definitely bumpy and the reason is sharing some of my practical takeouts that can enable a leader somewhere looking at leading volunteers, or currently leading volunteers and those who have had some experience and struggling to find their path and even those experienced leaders leading volunteers, there is always something new to learn. Below are five essentials traits for understanding when leading volunteers.
Be Catalytic and Humble
A catalytic leader takes charge of tasks without bearing down on the constituents. To lead volunteers, you must develop catalytic behaviour. Lead without emphasizing your authority or acting superior. A catalytic leader leads through coaching and mentorship. Your role should partner and provoke your constituents into finding their intrinsic motivation and link to the shared or intended goal. Without enabling your volunteers to unpack their intrinsic motivation and support them in linking their motives to the shared outcome, chances are that they will not be of value as volunteers. To achieve success in leading volunteers, being catalytic in a humble way is your path to success. This will enable connecting with your constituents, reduce fear or disdain for authority, and your constituents will feel more comfortable and confident interacting with you as their leader and motivated enough to match together in delivering the success of the shared goals.
Love and Appreciate your Constituents
Many leaders that I have encountered and even coached find it difficult dealing with “loving” their teams. They feel that loving their teams will weaken their focus and authority. They feel that loving their teams exposes them to a high level of vulnerability risk than they are willing to take. The reality is that if you do not love the team you are leading, you are barely influencing them. If you do not love your team, you are not connecting with them to levels where they can give their optimal efforts in delivering intended success. You are barely utilizing their optimal intelligence and, in this case, collective intelligence. You cannot lead volunteers if you do not love them. If you do not truly love your constituents, you cannot genuinely appreciate them and the efforts they put towards delivering a shared goal. There is no other remuneration to give volunteers than to genuinely love and appreciate every effort they put towards achieving the shared outcome. The more authentic you love and appreciate your constituents, the higher the effort and risk they will take in delivering the shared goal.
Crystalize a Purpose in your Constituents
Volunteers, in most cases, are with you because of the shared alignment on the course you are taking. They believe the course is aligned with their values. Therefore, cementing and crystalizing that shared understanding and values in their hearts will enable them to see the worthy purpose in walking with you towards achieving the shared values. When you take the lead in crystalizing the purpose in enabling them to understand that the course they are taking is worth dying for and living for, there is a high likelihood that they will be fully engaged and productive as you match together. However, some courses are not dying and living for, and if, as a leader, you do not crystalize the course as a purpose worth pursuing together with your constituents, they will temporarily walk with you and drop you off. They may feel that the initial attachment was just one of their curiosity sparks and realize it is not worth pursuing, dying and living for. To lead your constituents who are volunteers for a sustained, extended period, enable them to crystalize their purpose in understanding that the shared course is worth dying and living for.
Be both a Courageous Leader and a Follower
A courageous leader builds courageous followers. In my youtube channel – Accent Leadership Group, I have extensively addressed this discussion of courageous followership through various brief episodes. Kindly find time and check it out. However, in brief, Courageous leaders “ are individuals who are capable of making themselves better and stronger when the stakes are high, and circumstances turn against them,” says Harvard Business School Professor Nancy Koehn. Leading volunteers require you to develop courageous leadership. Courageous leaders create a culture of trust and respect. This is what will enable your volunteer constituents to follow you. Courageous leaders foster the development and evolution of their constituents. This, in turn, leads to an accelerated push towards attaining the shared goals. However, courageous leaders are also courageous followers of their constituents. They acknowledge that they may not entirely know everything and believe their constituents are experts in various fields and have much greater insights than them. As a courageous follower, you understand when to take responsibility and delegate responsibility, when to serve your constituents, when to challenge them and allow them to challenge your authority; and when to allow your constituents to take charge in facilitating change fully. These attributes will enable a successful relationship with your constituents and lead to greater success in achieving shared goals.
Create Simple and Reproducible Structures
Leading volunteers is a collaborative leadership effort. Ideally, there should be no hierarchical structure. Empower all your volunteers to be both leaders and followers simultaneously. Enable a culture of shared understanding, mutual respect and accommodating behaviours among your constituents. Have a mechanism for open sharing of information, encourage constructive conflicts and allow your constituents to develop the attitude of disagreeing to agree. This will enable them to apply their intelligence and creatively develop collective intelligence. Your role is unlike the traditional top-down approach to leadership in which management controls the flow of information and determines the course of action the team must take. Your role is to allow collective intelligence to determine the course and challenge or provoke deeper engagements where you feel the outcome is still not well thought-out. As a result, your constituents will be more engaged, feel trusted and are more likely to take ownership of the shared course and goals. Creating a simple and reproducible structure creates an inclusive environment that energizes your constituents, releases creativity, and cultivates a productive and joyful culture.
I believe these five traits can enable you to lead volunteers effectively. I have practised them over the last five years. I have engaged with the volunteers I have led and am still leading through feedback and in most cases, these five areas keep coming more often. Sharing with you will challenge you to practice them if you are leading volunteers. I want to challenge you as a leader, not leading volunteers but employees, to practice these traits and see how that will transform the engagement and productivity of your team. I have incorporated most of these traits in my upcoming book “Engaged and Productive”, coming out this August 2022. Watch out for the book. It is a very thought-provoking book that will challenge your current outlook on leadership and equip you with values that will enable you to build highly engaged and productive teams.
If the above thoughts have been valuable, do not hesitate to like or share with your friends and other leaders in your circle and share feedback on how your outcome has been as a result of practising these traits consistently in your leadership.
About the Author
Gilbert Ang’ana is the CEO of Accent Leadership Group, a Leadership Consulting and Advisory firm championing Leadership Advocacy in Africa and Beyond through Coaching, Training, Speaking and Research. He is a member of various nonprofit organization boards, including Chairing Rotary Club of Athi River Board as the current President 2022/23. He has authored three books, including an upcoming “Engaged and Productive”. He is also an adjunct lecturer of leadership at ACTs University in Rwanda. Interact with him through LinkedIn and learn more about his organization at www.stepafrique.com