From Task to Vision

In November 2014,   I met some remarkable volunteer leaders. It was a great experience. The occasion was a workshop that I gave at the national conference of the Canadian Society of Association Executives on Volunteer Leadership. I love talking to people about their challenges and hearing their stories. Wonderful conversations were had with each round table about what makes a good volunteer leader. People really enjoyed talking with their colleagues on their shared and particular challenges.

The workshop was entitled “From Task to Vision: New Perspectives of Volunteer Leadership”. My vision for the workshop was to bring both business and psychological ideas about leadership to the non-profit sector. We talked about what a leader is and the leadership function within our associations. Many people shared their good and bad experiences in non-profit organizations with other volunteer leaders. I have noticed – as a volunteer board member and consultant with many working boards through Becker Associates – that we all get bogged down in the tasks of our organization. This is important but it is a management function of the board, not the role of leadership.

Working boards can easily lose sight of the larger picture of their organization’s mandate.

Leadership is about guiding and articulating vision. That vision needs to be externally focused and serve the needs and the interests of members. The peculiarity of volunteer leadership is that one cannot coerce or force anyone to follow. Therefore, vision becomes paramount. Success in being a volunteer leader rests in understanding the motivation and inspiration of other volunteers. Volunteers who share a vision are more motivated. Effectiveness as a volunteer leader also rests on understanding what kind of leader you are and seeing the alignment in your leadership style with the culture of the association.

Leadership is not necessarily a skill that can be learned. Robert Quinn from the Harvard Business Review challenges the prevailing attitude that if we study, identify the qualities and behaviours of great leaders, and model ourselves on the behaviours, we should be able to teach people how to be great leaders. His coaching and research suggest that leadership is a state of being that is more about a mindset than a set of behaviours. We need to enter into being leader.

Being a Volunteer Leader

Not shortly after this talk, I was elected as the President of one of my professional associations.  My first year as the volunteer President of a professional association hit home as to how particularly challenging and difficult it is to be a volunteer leader.  Being asked to put on a hat that until one actually does it, you don’t really know what it is like.

The main issue for me during my tenure was time.  I am sure that this is true for most board presidents already have a full and rich life. We volunteer because they want to serve, we have a vision, we want to want to make a difference in their community. On top of a full-time job and a family, assuming the position takes a real commitment of energy and focus.  I was already really busy with work and other activities.  Unfortunately, my volunteer commitment often fell to the bottom of the priority list. I knew what needed to be done to turn the association around. If I was going to make the difference that I desired, I was going to work with my board team.  If I wanted to make my mark so to speak then I would need to be proactive.

I learned that being a volunteer leader, I needed to redefine my notion of leadership.  A leadership model based on coercion or in a place of obligation and would not work. It was a funny and frustrating place to be. I needed to learn how to inspire in a different way.   Now 4 years later,  my association and the dedicated volunteers have created a bold new vision which we are actively bringing into being. We have noticed that this vision is making it easier for people to say Yes to volunteering. In 2018,  every member of our board expressed how much they enjoyed their board work and to work with their colleagues. For the first time in several years,  we have a full board complement.

Governance as Leadership

Governance is increasing being recognized in the field of inquiry that it is a leadership process not just about roles and responsibilities, policies and procedures. Governance is the main job of a board of directors is a leadership function.

If you find something here that is useful and helpful in your role as a volunteer leader, please consider sharing this post on social media. I welcome your comments below.