THE BLOG
11/17/2014 04:24 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

You Lead Volunteers (Whether You Like It Or Not)

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What did you do when you got to work this morning?

Did you dive in with passion or ease into the day? Did you do the easy things first or did you tackle a thorny problem with creative energy?

Regardless of what you did, one thing I know for sure is that you made a choice. You chose what you would do and how you would do it.

"Wait just a minute," you might say; "I had to work on that report because my boss wanted it by lunch."

Yes, your boss might have asked for it, but you made a choice to do it and you chose how much energy, creativity, and time you would put into it.

In fact, there are only three things in the world that you must do: breathe, eliminate bodily waste, and (someday) die. Every other behavior is a choice.

You choose how you show up to work each day: Will you give it your best or just occupy space and slide by? It's a choice you make.

Now, if it's a choice for you, it's also a choice for your team. Ultimately, every person on your team is a volunteer.

I can hear your objection: "Hang on! If they don't do their job I can fire them."

You're right of course, but that doesn't change anything. They still have a choice about what they do and whether or not to remain on the team. Your employees may not be conscious that they make choices (just as you may not have realized the choices you made this morning until I pointed them out), but that doesn't change the fact that they have a choice.

Still not convinced? Think about your own situation: to keep your job, there is a minimum effort you have to put in. You can choose to do the minimum, or less, or more.

Oddly enough, I've never worked with a single leader who wants a team's minimum effort. Of course not. As a leader you want motivated, committed, energized teams. In short: teams that choose to give their best.

You can have those teams when you understand that each person chooses:
  • If they will be a part of your team.
  • How they will show up.
  • What they will do
  • How much energy or creativity they will use to do it.
This fundamental leadership truth will change your leadership forever. Once you see every person, action, and ounce of energy as a choice, not an entitlement, you can't help but do things differently.

Your work as a leader shifts from force to invitation, from control to influence, from fear to gratitude. You don't lead to wring out the worst, but to bring out the best.

Leaders who treat team members as volunteers:
  • Connect the "what" to the "why." Work without meaning is punishment for prison camps. Make sure your team knows the purpose behind their tasks, the value in the organization's work, and how their work makes a difference. If the work has no meaning -- eliminate it!
  • Ask "How can I help?" Your team needs support and training that only you can provide. Make sure they have the training, equipment, and support they need to succeed. Don't do their work for them, but help them grow and expand their ability to problem solve and ask questions that prompt critical thinking.
  • Apologize when you screw up. An apology doesn't make you weak. It demonstrates courage, builds your credibility, and models responsibility when you drop the ball. That's what you want from your team, right?
  • Maintain standards and expectations. Volunteers, more than anyone, need to know that their time is valued. When you permit people to underperform without consequence, you've told everyone who does their best that they've wasted their time.
  • Say "thank you." Do you like what your team did? Do they know it? Do you want more of it? Don't wait to say "thank you."

If you think about your own achievements, I'll bet your best efforts did not result only from money or a fear of losing your job. It likely took something else to draw out your best performance. Why would it be any different for the people you lead?

Everyone is a volunteer. Lead with gratitude!