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Leading “wealthy volunteers”

5 min read


There is an adage that goes, “Authority is the last resort of the inept and frustrated.” Parents who have found themselves relying on “…because I said so” to direct a reluctant child know the truth of the adage. When rank becomes the only means of insuring compliance, one has long lost the battle to effectively influence.

The art of influencing has challenged leaders for centuries. In autocratic settings, influencing is relatively simple to accomplish — you simply gave an order. In more democratic settings, leaders resorted to an array of more humanistic means. Some leaders influence by selling — focusing on the benefits of pursuing a goal. Some use colorful communication with a reliance on a charismatic style or a compelling message.

Role modeling is a popular approach to influencing with leaders — “walking the talk.” Then there is the incentives approach — affirming the “good subordinate” who acted in sync with a goal. But there is a more effective approach to influencing that goes beyond the tradition control and self-interest techniques. It entails choosing partnership over patriarchy. If we approach our relationship with our followers as fellow travelers on the same train, we begin to acknowledge interdependence.

To get a handle on the experience of partnership from the leader’s perspective, imagine you have been away on a two-week vacation. While you were away, your subordinates put up $10 each to purchase a group of lottery tickets hoping to win the largest jackpot ever. If any ticket won, they would share the winnings equally. They win and are all now all multi-millionaires! At your first staff meeting after returning from vacation, your subordinates announce that they have all decided to resign. However, they would like to remain as full-time volunteers. Assume these are the only subordinates you can get for a long time.

What would your leadership style look like if all of your employees were wealthy, full-time volunteers?

Leader as partner: Collective creation of purpose

The first component of “leader as partner” is the collective creation of purpose. Peter Block in his book “Stewardship” states, “In the traditional process, management creates its vision and then the enrollment process begins. … Enrollment is soft-core colonialism, a subtle form of control through participation. Nothing has changed in the belief in control, consistency and predictability; only the packaging is different.”

A truly shared vision is one crafted collectively. It entails creating contexts in which everyone enters the dialogue about direction. It involves getting every person affected by the vision to have an honest, non-pressured say in what it looks like.

Leader as partner: The power of shared legacy

Helping people see how they contribute to the future is a vital part of the role of a great leader. Helping them discover how they contribute to a rich history is also a part of that role. A CEO addressed her managers at a crucial turning point in the company’s life. “We stand today on the shoulders of the pioneering giants who came before us,” she told them. “But, you are the people on whose shoulders others will stand in the future. Let us all make sure the quality of our work insures those who stand upon us have a sound footing.” Great leaders don’t let employees forget their corporate ancestry as a way to honor the emotional ground on which the organization stands.

Leaders as partners: Complete bone honesty

Effective partnerships are coalitions laced in truth. Honesty and candor are seen as tools for growth rather devices for disdain. Partners serve each other straight talk mixed with compassion and care. The truth-seeking component of effective partnership is that which values candor and openness. The path to honest relationships is replete with interpersonal risk taking and mutual critique. It involves the courage to ask for feedback as well as the compassion to give feedback. It is the quality that exterminates guilt and deceit. Truth nurtures cleanness in associations.

Where does all this leave the partner in charge? Certainly it does not mean organizations become entities lead by a committee. People in the most senior role of leadership have a responsibility for insuring clarity, particularly regarding effective ways to be distinctive in the marketplace. They also are charged with insuring power is shared, not hoarded. They serve their colleagues through support, linking partner with partner as well as locating fresh leadership for the partnership. The partner in charge champions the betterment of the partnership by elevating the standards of excellence.

Partnership is a commitment to a dialogue, not an act of surrendering. It starts with asking for input rather than offering instruction. It entails averting the trap of being the “answer person.” It is operating with the faith that wisdom lays within us all, and the effective leader opts for the inefficient fostering of discovery rather than the expeditious pronouncement of the solution.

Chip R. Bell is a renowned keynote speaker, consultant and author of several best-selling books including his most recent, “The 9½ Principles of Innovative Service.” He can be reached through