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Why volunteering makes you a better leader

4 min read


You know volunteering is good for the community. But can volunteering make you a better leader?

Lots of leaders volunteer. According to the Department of Labor Statistics,  more than a quarter of the American population volunteers, and employed people volunteer more frequently than the unemployed.

Many corporations actively support volunteering; 48 of the 100 companies recognized in the 100 Best Places to Work  give paid time off for volunteering; and Starbucks and others have made volunteering part of their turnaround stories.

I have been talking with hundreds of leaders through live conversations, LinkedIn forums, and other banter. Time and again, people shared these key ways volunteering makes them a better leader.

Expanded perspective

Volunteering takes you outside of your comfort zone, giving you an opportunity to work with new challenges, people, politics and interpersonal dynamics. Volunteering offers new perspective on priorities. Hanging out with people with different life experiences encourages you to tackle challenges from different angles. “I volunteered for six weeks, with the support of Cross Cultural Solutions, in the schools of New Delhi, India,” said Julie Zolfo, founder and positive impact consultant at Make Success Matter. “In those slums I had the most profound experiences that truly changed not only how I would progress in my career, but more important, how I would show up in the world.”

Discovery of new talents

It can sometimes feel risky to try out new skills at work. It may also be difficult to convince someone to give you a chance to use your untested skills. Most volunteer organizations are glad for the help. You seldom have to prove your qualifications to be given a chance. Good leaders understand that  employees are learning outside of work. The smart ones then leverage these skills. “I encourage managers to find out what skills staff are developing or have developed while volunteering and seek to bring them into the business environment,” says Geoff Principal of Greenfields Associates.

Honed influence

Let’s be frank — there is a benefit to power. No matter how empowering your approach, the higher you are on the organizational chart, the more likely folks will be to do what you ask. Volunteering levels the playing field. Will people still follow if they don’t have to? How must you show up differently to make that happen?

Freedom to experiment

Ideally you can take risks at work. That’s easier in some organizations than others. Most volunteer gigs give you latitude to experiment and try new things. This was the most common theme reiterated by everyone I talked to. It’s just easier to take risks, and potentially screw up, when you’re not getting paid.

A larger network

Volunteering gives you the opportunity to hang out with a whole new crowd. These new folks have different experiences and approaches. Plus, most of them also have day jobs, giving you an opportunity to make career connections.

“Over the last few years I’ve volunteered with various professional development organizations to develop training workshops. During each engagement I’ve learned a lot about outstanding leadership styles from executives at Fortune 500 companies,” says Cynthia Jenkins of Creative Leadership Excellence.

Of course, there were also a few naysayers. One skeptic shared, “If you have time to volunteer outside of your day job then you are probably not working to your full advantage.”

Volunteering is an investment in the community — and in your growth as leader.

How has volunteering made you a better leader?

See also:

“The Power of Yes”

“Humility Matters: 9 Ways Confident Leaders Remain Humble”

Karin Hurt is an experienced executive and leadership zealot whose favorite work is to ask questions and inspire others to look deeply within themselves as they grow as leaders. Connect with Hurt on her website, Facebook page or on Twitter.