We Don’t Need Servant Leaders in the Volunteer Realm!

From the Servant Leadership: Serve to Be Great Blog
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This blog is about leadership as it applies to projects and project management, but also as it applies to society in general. The bloggers here manage projects and lead teams in both business and volunteer environments, and are all graduates of PMI's Leadership Institute Master Class. We hope to bring insight into the challenges we all experience in our projects and in our day-to-day work, providing helpful tidbits to inspire you to take action to improve—whether in your personal life, your business/work life or on your projects. Read, comment and share your experiences as we share ours. Let’s make the pie bigger! Grab a slice!

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Categories: Leadership, PMI, Volunteering


There I was, on the Halifax Waterfront Boardwalk just outside Privateers Warehouse, enjoying the beautiful, hot, sweltering day: the sort of day that made it difficult to lick all the drips of the Cows chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream cone I had just salivatingly acquired as they began their rapid trek down the cone onto my hand, threatening to turn my arm into a sticky mess and prompting me to lament the fact that I had forgotten to ask for extra serviettes.

My colleague and I were out for a lunch time stroll, enjoying the cloudless indigo sky and the emerald water, passing Nova Scotia’s trademark Bluenose schooner at its usual dock and dodging tourists coming from the opposite direction, likely from one of the three gargantuan cruise ships that had docked farther down the harbour that morning at Pier 21. They were undoubtedly also on their way to purchase one of those delicious Cows delicacies, firm in their knowledge that the tourist brochure held rolled up in their sweaty fist was leading them to an unusual guilty Haligonian experience.

Since we both served on the same local volunteer board, we fell into a conversation about servant leadership and what it all meant. I expressed my belief that mentoring and coaching was a big part of being on any board, especially in volunteer organizations, due to the limited lifetime of a volunteer role. She conjectured that it didn’t really matter what happened after you left a volunteer organization, because you were no longer responsible, and it was up to those who stayed behind to do their part.

Well, that got me going. I posited that a volunteer board is exactly like an ice cream cone in the heat. The cone is the framework of the organization and the ice cream is its volunteer base, formed of board members and committees of the board. As volunteers finish their terms and leave the organization (those drips of ice cream racing toward their next role in life) they must leave something behind - a fresh scoop of ice cream that has been formed to fit the cone, and well prepared to withstand the heat of the day.

I have to confess my metaphor dwindled into indistinct mumbling at this point.

After gently informing me that my example was fraught with drips, if not gaping holes, my esteemed colleague agreed that one must leave something behind. I said, “Got ya! So you agree with me after all!”. Begrudgingly, she admitted that perhaps she was somewhat hasty in her previous rather heartless assertion and agreed that volunteer board members need guidance and succession planning to keep the board alive and true to its original mandate, providing continuity of purpose.

In our case, the mandate was to provide value to members through networking, professional development and certification. You probably have already guessed the organization in question. You know - the one that provides incredible value to its members and through them to the profession and many industries they serve.

So are volunteer organizations really like Cows ice cream cones in the heat? Of course not, but if that playful similie coerced you into reading this article, my purpose is served. I admit it. I am a shameless snake oil salesman.

But to get on with the real topic, the one that has you on the edge of your seat, seeking answers, allow me to suggest that in a volunteer organization servant leadership is indeed required. It is required in other organizations too, but in this one, because of the fluidity of the board and its committees, even more so.

As a president of a volunteer board or a director of a portfolio, it is your job to develop people to fill your shoes to ensure the organization continues to live on within its original mandate. Because board roles are often quite short, as normally dictated by some fairly stringent by-laws and articles of incorporation, replacing yourself with someone who has been indoctrinated into the volunteer culture of the board has to be a main preoccupation of yours. I’m sure you will agree that bringing someone onto a board with zero experience of the organization’s inner workings is not a way to do this.

So develop your replacement. Lend them a helping hand. Give them an opportunity to see how that finely tuned engine works so they can strive for the success you’ve achieved and learn from the failures you’ve experienced. Succession planning is crucial. Grooming your fellow board members for a leadership role, and encouraging them to also groom their committee members to step into their roles is one of your primary jobs as a volunteer board member.

As you ponder your role, always remember that as a steward of a volunteer organization, it is your job to leave it better than you found it. And what more effective way is there to do this than by preparing those who succeed you to reach for an even higher pinnacle of success than you and your colleagues achieved?

To those of you in the warm part of the globe, I wish you a fabulous summer season, and may you catch all those drips of delicious dairy confection before they leave the bottom of your cone. And to those of you who are not, enjoy your winter sports, resting in the certain knowledge that your ice cream will not melt.

Posted by Mike Frenette on: July 10, 2017 08:55 AM | Permalink

Comments (7)

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** Notes to clarify some of the items in the above story, and a bit of a plug for tourism in the Maritime provinces of Canada:

Cows ice cream was established in 1983 on Prince Edward Island, a Canadian province, on PEI's peerless Cavendish Beach.

The Bluenose is a famous Grand Banks fishing and racing schooner built in 1921 in the town of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, now a world heritage site. She never lost a race. Sadly, she struck a reef and sunk off a Haitian island in 1943. In 1963, a replica named the Bluenose II, was built in the same shipyard by many of the same people who built the original. The Bluenose has been immortalized on the Canadian dime since 1937.

The Halifax Waterfront Boardwalk runs from Pier 21 where many world-class cruise ships dock on a regular basis. It leads visitors from the dock along the waterfront past many attractions, restaurants and food stands to the heart of the downtown. During the summer months, the Boardwalk is crowded with residents, tourists and buskers. It has become an attraction in its own right over the years, drawing photographers, dog-walkers and those out for a stroll and a breath of fresh sea air.

Pier 21 is a National Historic Site. It was the gateway to Canada for one million immigrants between 1928 and 1971 and served as the departure point for 500,000 Canadian Military personnel during WWII. Today, Pier 21 hosts the national Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21.

Great post. I agree. The consistency of the mission for the volunteer organization is crucial. Not preparing your successor invites failure.

And now I need to make a trek to Halifax for some ice cream. Thanks.

Seems a long way to go some ice cream, Ed, as delicious as it is! ;)

Thanks for the summarizing comments.

It is probably obvious that continuity is key, but sometimes obvious things need to be stated. So, although that may lead to my being called Captain Obvious at times, someone's got to do it! :)

Nice one, Mike. And great historical details :). Thank you.

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