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Everything I Needed to Know About Leadership, I Learned… When My Kids Entered Kindergarten


Move over, military.  There’s a new leadership development setting in town!

For most of the twentieth century, leaders grew up primarily through their military experiences, developing the models, approaches, and skills that would eventually extend to the workplace. But, as enlistment in the armed forces has systematically dropped, potential leaders have had to find other contexts within which to develop. A vast number (including myself) are now learning the leadership ropes through volunteer efforts.

Although I’d been a manager for years before my children entered school, my talents were immediately put to the test and refined as I began taking on volunteer leadership responsibility at Marengo Elementary School.  Leading volunteers offers unique challenges:

  • Volunteers bring their own agendas, ideas, and needs to every project.
  • You have almost no leverage over volunteers.
  • Volunteers are stealing time from other priorities to help… so it had to be worth it to them.

Does this sound at all familiar? Volunteers actually sound a lot like employees.

Leading volunteers just might be the most transferable and valuable of all leadership development experiences because everyone (paid or not) is volunteering their time, energy, and talents on some level. We all exercise the free will to choose what we’ll do. Regardless of performance expectations or paychecks, we regulate how much we’ll give.

What if leaders treated paid employees like they were volunteers to the organization? What if we stopped believing that the paycheck is some sort of leverage? What if we understood the employees’ agendas, met their needs, and made work meaningful and fun? What if we applied volunteer leadership practices in the workplace?

Several years ago, while assuming the role of volunteer coordinator at my daughter’s school, I developed a booklet to train other parents about how to get the most from their volunteers. I suggested that was as easy as ABC:

Anticipate your needs well in advance.  The people who are inclined to say “yes” to you are also saying “yes” to others.  Consider your volunteer needs early.  When is help required?  What tasks are involved?  What skills and talents are needed?  Plan in advance and communicate the tasks and timeframes with as much notice as possible…. and see your “yeses” grow.

Be appreciative of whatever a volunteer is willing to give.  Volunteers have their own agendas.  They have busy lives, talents they want to contribute, real jobs, long hours, other commitments, and families to raise.  Be open to personalizing volunteer opportunities.  Offer chances to help on a one-time, once-a-month, or take-home basis.  Find ways to use the time and talents others offer on their terms.

Communicate, communicate, communicate.  In real estate, it’s location; in volunteer management, it’s communication.  Keep volunteers “in the know” about events, results, successes, and the specifics associated with their work.  While it’s seductive to use email as an easy way to share a consistent message to the masses, also be aware of the power of the person touch.  However you choose to do it, just stay in touch.

Upon reflection, these strategies are as appropriate in the workplace with paid employees as they are with volunteers. So, in honor of April being National Volunteer Month, I’d like to share with you the full A-Z version of my volunteer success strategies. (Click to download a PDF of ABCs of Volunteer Management.)

Leaders are charged with bringing out the best in others – focusing their skills, talents, and passions toward larger organizational results. Those others – paid or not – make choices everyday about what they’ll bring (or volunteer) to an effort. Perhaps a volunteer leadership mindset could unleash more enthusiasm, greater energy, and better results. What better time than now – National Volunteer Month – to try it out?

How could thinking about employees more like volunteers help improve your leadership and results?


  1. I think you’re onto something with this concept, particularly as we try to manage/lead the most recent influx of millennials as they enter the marketplace.

    • Thanks for your comment, Pete. And I hadn’t thought of that… but you’re right. What it takes to be successful in volunteer leadership has strong parallels to what it takes to be successful leading younger members of the workforce. What an insightful observation!

  2. Julie:
    I sent your well written blog to our religious education director at our church. Volunteering tends to be a lost art with a few doing the work for many. I appreciate your insights they are always so timely.

    • Thank you, Judy. Yep… the 80-20 rule is alive and well in the volunteer sector. I’m hopeful that excellent leadership might shift the numbers… even a little would help!

  3. Thank you for sharing your insights. Tapping into volunteers’ AND employees’ intrinsic motivation, showing value for their time, and honoring their talents are all critical leadership practices. Also, I agree with Pete about being right on in terms of leading the millennials.
    Kudos, Julie, for your well-crafted thoughts on this subject!


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