Your City, Your Business: Leading volunteers presents a challenge
The boss says, "Jump" and the employees say, "How high?" This old quip may once have been funny -- but no longer. It implies that a business owner needs only one tool in the toolbox: power over employees. Thankfully, times are changing, particula...
The boss says, "Jump" and the employees say, "How high?" This old quip may once have been funny -- but no longer. It implies that a business owner needs only one tool in the toolbox: power over employees. Thankfully, times are changing, particularly in the world of volunteer-led organizations.
Volunteer-led organizations like the Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce are the most leadership-intensive enterprises in modern society. True, many business owners and operators may question that assertion, but the more one considers its rationale, the more evident it becomes. Simply put, this belief rests on the understanding that positional power does not work in volunteer organizations.
In a typical private business, the owner or operator has the position and thus the power to direct employees to do things, and to do them in a certain way. Business owners have tremendous leverage in the form of salary, benefits and perks. Most followers are cooperative when their livelihood is at stake. In the military, leaders can use rank and the threat of discharge to get things moving.
In strong contrast, the major motivating force in voluntary organizations is the purest form of leadership: influence. Leaders have only influence to aid them. The ability to motivate others to participate is the essence of the power to influence. Participants in voluntary organizations cannot be forced to do anything. If a volunteer leader lacks influence with other volunteers, he or she will be ineffective. If a businessperson truly wants to find out whether his or her colleagues are capable of leading, he or she has only to encourage them to invest their time in a volunteer leadership role. (By the way, the Chamber will soon be looking for new board members.)
I interact with business owners who are accustomed to getting things accomplished by deciding what has to be done and then simply doing the task themselves or directing their employees to do it. There is efficiency in this approach, but it doesn't work well outside that businessperson's work environment. The more directive the style of the business owner, the more frustration he or she experiences in trying to lead volunteers. (These same leaders have, on more than one occasion, voiced frustration and concern with the length of time involved in working an initiative through the Chamber. I have been asked: "Does this issue really have to go through these committees and the board of directors before we can proceed?" The procedure was a point of concern, as well as an education, for some of our members.)
Other volunteer organizations (e.g., the Duluth Public Policy Alliance, the Northland Sustainable Business Alliance, Connect Duluth, the Bridge Syndicate or Duluth First) face an amplified challenge in that they are entirely volunteer-led. These organizations do not have a professional staff to support their volunteer leadership. Their only power lies in motivating volunteers to participate in their various causes, and volunteers must be encouraged, educated, humored, empowered, appealed to, applauded and otherwise influenced into action. I have respect and admiration for the leaders of these volunteer organizations.
In summary, I encourage Duluthians to put their leadership skills to the test within a volunteer organization like the Chamber. Doing so will demand that they develop these skills in a manner that can only increase their leadership ability and influence.