Being a Volunteer Leader Is Hard

I’ve been thinking about this topic for a few weeks, maybe longer. It’s based on the three years I served on the PASS Board, and observations of others who served before during, and after that time. I’m trying to look at behaviors and patterns, not people and personalities, though surely the latter plays a part in how effective a leader and the entire Board can be each year. My definition of success may not match yours, or theirs.

Starting at the beginning, most people run for the Board either to pay it back/forward or to advance their career, or both. Both are fine reasons to run and serving on the Board is a good way to do both. Generalizing, I would say most candidates for the Board have never served on a Board before, or worked in a non-hierarchal environment. Perhaps half of them, or more, have never owned their own business or managed anything beyond a small team. Until recently few had experience “managing” volunteers. Then then get thrown into an environment as junior peers on a team of equals supported by a full time staff that has their own way and reasons for doing things. They sit at a table with 12 really smart peers and realize that there at least 12 ways to look at an issue. It’s a confusing time, trying to figure out the portfolio, the staff, the rules and unwritten policies and the why and why not. I think this may be done a little better than back when I joined in 2009, but probably not much.

If you watch a first time leader, they almost always become over cautious and over involved (and a bunch more things). It’s natural and not wrong. Over time they either figure it out, or fail, while the team tries to survive. I’ll argue it’s easier in the business world with a hierarchy, but it’s still a tremendous learning curve. Plus, in business the worst that can happen is you fired. Not good to be sure, but survivable, and rare. When you join PASS, there’s this idea that seems to get transmitted to new members of “don’t f**k this up”. That’s not bad either. The org has started, prospered, struggled, prospered, no one wants it to die, and certainly not because of a decision you made.

Then there is the non disclosure agreement, which most people find daunting, because they want to play by the rules (as they should), and for PASS, there’s also the idea that ‘only officers can speak’ for PASS. Somehow those two things combine to seriously inhibit public discourse, and then you add to it the complaints and negativity about decisions or lack of decisions. It’s easy to feel trapped, or more than that, to think something along the lines of “I’m a volunteer, I don’t need this ….”. Marketing wants to approve every message and schedule it. HQ doesn’t want you in debates on Twitter or blogs because it might cause more attention to a negative issue. Many new leaders aren’t used to speaking as leaders, aren’t comfortable writing about their ideas, their work, and their decisions. Many leaders – not even the new ones – appreciate the value of sharing what they are working on, they think either “why would anyone care” or more commonly, “I can get something done or write about it”. It’s never “or”, but it’s an easy way to justify not doing it.

Criticism sucks. I don’t like being criticized, probably you don’t either. I try to be fair about criticize when I do it (and I may or may not succeed at that), but many don’t try – they seem something wrong, they complain. That’s one reason that back in 2009 the unwritten rule was that we’d debate a vote, but the voting would just show the #yeas/nays, not who voted, so that no one could be singled out for criticism. We got that changed and I think it’s been good, but it’s certainly been hard on some.

Just like taking any new job, it’s hard to really understand the culture and the work until you arrive. You have to adapt to the culture to get things done, but that doesn’t mean you can’t also change the culture as you go. Whether you choose to do so depends on your world view. I tend to be an agent/proponent of change, though never for the sake of change, but every team needs those that look at the road ahead to make sure the ship doesn’t change course too fast.

No one gets it all right, including me. I was thinking about the recent episode about the 24HOP and it reminded me of years ago a discussion about whether PASS “black listed” speakers. I asked, and we didn’t, and that’s what I shared. Looking back, I should have asked “why don’t we?” because surely there are reasons to decide someone needs a year or two on the bench. Rare, but they exist. I protected the organization (by telling the truth as I found it), but I didn’t help the organization grow when it could have. Why/how did I miss that? Some lessons take time.

Most people want to get along with the team. Taking a contrarian or adversarial position is no fun. Do it often enough and you lose your ability to be heard on anything, yet teams need a contrarian voice. I’ve always wondered why we didn’t ask people to switch sides and argue the other point, or appoint someone as the contrarian of the week. Most people aren’t used to sustained conflict and so they go dark, because anything different is painful. It’s human.

I know it’s been a ramble, but here’s the summary. Being a volunteer lead is hard, I get that. But it doesn’t mean you won’t be held accountable. It’s easy to get caught up in discussions of junk and not get anything meaningful done.  Keeping the lights on is job one, but it’s not the only job. Serving the members is what matters. I often tell people that PASS has the one thing that all non-profits/social businesses dream of – a superb fund raiser. Given liquidity, there’s a lot of good that can be done in the world. Are you making the most of it? Or coasting?