Plays Well With Others

Virgil Carter posted a great comment on yesterday’s post. There are several interesting points, but let me focus on one:

Perhaps the biggest leadership challenge is understanding that non-profit (particularly IMO) leadership is most often in teams, ie, project teams, functional committees and governance teams. This is often challenging because the leadership experiences many volunteers bring to an IMO, from their day job, may often be based on strong, energetic individual leadership energies. Leading through teams, particularly volunteer-composed teams, is often an wholly new (often frustrating) experience for some volunteers.

My initial reaction to this was one of surprise. ALL leadership is in teams! Of course, I define leadership in terms of a collective capacity, rather than in terms of individual charisma and forcefulness, so I am coming from a different perspective on this topic than many.

But I would suggest we think of OTHER reasons that these leaders are not playing well in the group setting. Even if their day job work cultures are individualistic, I have to think they’ve worked well in teams to get to the top, or at least many of them have (I am speaking generally here, of course, and not about Virgil’s organization specifically).

Now I would agree that you have a general problem when all the volunteer leaders happen to be hierarchical leaders back in their day jobs. Even if they are good at working in groups back at the home office, in their current positions, the members of their groups all report to them (and this is NOT the case in the association context). You get a bunch of people who are used to running the meeting all on the same committee, and it can get frustrating.

But beyond the external factor, what is driving this internally? What is it about the culture of your organization and the underlying assumptions in your governance model that actually reinforces the individualistic behavior? Virgil’s point about starting early with leadership development plays in here. You have the opportunity to actively develop the culture of leadership and move it away from an individual-focused model, but it takes a lot of work and attention. We tend to create governance models based on structure and content and then we end up surprised they don’t work because of the softer “process” issues.


  1. 22.08.2007 at 9:49 am

    Jamie, I think you are right on to point out that there are important drivers that cause volunteers (and staff) to approach their leadership roles in many different ways. For individual and organizational success, we need to recognize and understand these drivers.
    At the same time, there are occupational areas (and personality traits) in which leadership is (and is not) team oriented.
    For example, academia and government are occupational areas where there is often little incentive, recognition or reward for large scale or consisent annual group or team leadership. Academic recognition, promotion and advancement, for example, are historically tied to the individual scholarship of each member of the teaching and research faculties. Industry and the military, particularly consulting fields, have their own examples of individual leadership–architecture is a good example.
    Of course, this may be an age and/or cultural thing, with older persons brough up in, and practicing, a more individualistic approach to leadership, with younger persons more group or team oriented. Some cultures, by definition, may have been historically more individualistic as well.
    But, as you suggest, there are other important drivers that influence leadership performance styles. For example, in my experience, volunteers tend to run for higher leadership positions, motivated by one or more of the following:
    –Desire to help the profession or field advance (miniscule personal agendas–open to what’s best for the association–seeks progress, works hard);
    –Recognition of year’s of previous service and serving in many/most of the other “lower” leadership positions (desire for recognition & perks–may have little energy for progress & improvements, creates few problems);
    –Desire for personal/business gain (seeking opportunities for advancement–may use association programs and/or budgets for personal/business benefit)
    –Frustration in day job or life (seeking escape & perhaps opportunity for retribution for perceived personal frustrations–may be unpredictable & irrational)
    Each of these motivations is very different and results in very different leadership behavior and communications from volunteers in each of the categories. Much, much more could be said.
    I hope others will jump in and explore these “behind the scenes” drivers.