Friday, February 04, 2005

Leadership and Volunteer Management

Sidenote: yes I am still alive, even if this flu has taken a heavy toll on me. Thank you for your emails... now down to business....

I have various kinds of friends, interested in different topics, and I like various topics myself. I had been accumulating links over links till I got an email from Jill, which gave me an idea on how to sew them together, so here I am.

Starting with AVA's motto: "Every volunteer, effectively led".

Few months ago, a discussion about leadership on cyberVPM brought to my attention how there are persons that, surprisingly, oppose the term "leading volunteers". They think it to be somehow offensive to volunteers: "they are not animals, you don't lead them anywhere" they say "they go where they want to go". In fact, I said leader, were they animals I'd use shepherd instead. *grin*

All that fuss over hierarchies and leadership is yet another excess of such politically correct "person-centered" (and brain-alien) language.

The fact we all are usually given the right to choose where to go doesn't mean we need no hint about which direction to take. Even if the whole politically corrected world rushes out (usually, yelling at whom disagrees...) to level differences with some kilos of white let's-all-pretend-to-be-equal paint. And has even the nerve to call it "respect for differences"! I for one am humble enough to admit that yes, there ARE fields in which I DO need directions and no, I am not ashamed of it, nor to admit it, because there is nothing bad about it. I also am not envious of leaders and leadership roles, so I guess it's easier for me to accept the term and concept. Plus, I realize how the world needs hierarchies in order to work (on the danger of upside-down hierarchies, like putting ideals before feelings, I'll write another day....).

Others would prefer the term manager, or adminstrator. I don't like any of them. The former assimilates people to things to move from one place to another, the second to money that runs from pocket to pocket. I stick by Volunteer Leader.

But back to the leadership thingy... what is leadership?

In most countries, as well as in most persons' minds, leadership is something you obtain especially when you don't deserve it, provided you are willing to yell long enough to. The concept is dangerously similar to that of advocacy. Pick up a subject, it's not important whether you are right or wrong, whether your claims make sense or not. It is important that you yell so loud and for so long, possibly throwing all you can find on your path at whoever dare disagreeing with you. That way, they will become afraid of openly going against you, and you'll feel you won your war for celebrity and are the biggest expert in the world. But there is a problem: while you feel all contemptuous, the rest of the world will be laughing at you, your idiosincrasies and your intellectual blindness. If they sound respectful is because they are waiting for an occasion in which they will be granted impunity. At which time, you will see who is the winner and who is the sucker.

So again what is leadership and who is the leader? Leadership is when a consistent portion of a group of people follow the opinions, behaviours and/or ideas of a person that is but expressing him/herself in such process (meaning: no show-offs, no manipulations). They decide who the leader is and the leader can only accept or refuse the role. Get real: you cannot be a leader if nobody but yourself designates you as one. Period. You can't say: "I am the boss therefore I am the leader". PERIOD.

That's why self-proclamed leaders and experts are persons that, at minimum, are being blinded by their own ambitions but, usually, by their own stupidity and limitations.

Being a leader has something "animal" in it. It's a matter of sensing the temperature of persons & groups, of interpreting non-verbal language (and, for God's sake, remember Mehrabian!), of having & displaying feelings, of motivating folks and of knowing how to speak in meaningful spontaneous discourses. It is NOT about sending cold informal "personal" messages and newsletters, interpreting ONLY verbal language, keeping feelings and "important stuff" private, beating people into submission about some "ideal" and giving long technical/numerical/idealistic speeches. A leader is a person that after you listened to, you feel you can do what s/he is doing, with the result that s/he is having, if only you get into his/her attitude.

It's not about what the leader says, or thinks, or is. It is about how s/he makes you feel when s/he speaks to you. Even when you dissent from what s/he says, you feel that S/HE made you think, S/HE inspired you, S/HE fuelled your actions. Even when s/he prompted you to disproof what s/he just wrote! THIS is a leader. A person whose post you never skip, a person you want to listen to, and not just because s/he pesters you if you don't.

And no, being a leader is not a bed of roses, like false leaders think and claim to experience. You have no pauses or few, because their eyes, the eyes of the people that chose you as a leader are on YOU, whether you like it or not, want it or not, feel like it or not. Whether you feel you are enough for the role, the task, the goal or you are not, they chose you. The fact you wouldn't have chosen yourself doesn't change their mind. If you watched the Matrix, it was Morpheus to choose Neo as the leader, regardless of Neo's personal opinion. THAT is what leadership is like, and it's not easy or nice.

So the point is, of course, not all Volunteer Managers (or Adminstrators) can be Volunteer Leaders. Yet, they can still be intelligent enough to understand when volunteers recognise them as leaders and when they don't. And humble enough to detect who is that they recognise as leader and how to cultivate this person into a Volunteer Manager Assistant, or a Supervisor of Volunteers.

Another problem is that, usually, a person that is comfortable being a manager is a pretty anal one as well. Thus, s/he will have issue on letting go of control, watching volunteers too tightly, endlessly writing job descriptions (cuz they think job descriptions can't be misunderstood, you know), supervising "too much", having delusions that "if I am not here, things just don't get done" and so forth. The idea that there is life outside of what they think is just hard to get into those heads.

So, the social life of volunteers? "It's not important, it's important that the job gets done". Appreciating volunteers? "Well, why don't we just thank them as much as possible and that will cover most of the feeling stuff?". Facilitating social exchanges among volunteers? "As I said, it's more important that the work gets done". Well, if these three aspects improved the quality and quantity of work at Xerox, WHO in the #@รง* tells you that it wouldn't work at your organization, Einstein?

It's because those people are mistrustful of all that can't be controlled, rigorously duplicated and measured. If they help humankind out of duty (or loyalty to some ideals), they can't imagine you can perform the same action out of love, gratefulness or any other feeling.

So yes, I basically think that there is another way to manage volunteer, a happy hybrid between the "all fluff" everything-goes and the North American managerial style.

It would help, and a lot, if we recognise that:
1) group of volunteers have social hierarchies, inner leaders, social networks, likes and dislikes that are "reflective" in nature and individual in the way they present themselves. That means, each volunteer carefully select who to buddy up with, for reasons that have to do with their background, values, motivations and upbringing;
2) they way groups of volunteers behave is inherently different from group of workers. Most works on groups of volunteers have been conducted on open source software developers or on communities of practice. In both cases, and in a surprisingly myope way, findings have been analyzed through the lenses of groups of workers. In other words, the fact they weren't being paid hasn't been taken in account OR such volunteers have been considered motivated by having their name inserted in the acknowledgement file (that already happens for workers, but how is that they still want to be paid???? Hmmmmmm.....);
3) belonging to such groups is a big part of why they decide to start volunteering and of why they decide to stay at our organization (or leave).

For all these reasons, the Volunteer Manager can't possibly go on "letting these groups happen" because too much of what gets done (and especially, of what does NOT get done) depends on the mismanagement of this very precious resources.

And remember, when you doubt about your own leadership and don't know what to do, don't search the "expert"... identify the leader in that group and build on top of it.

It works.

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