Thursday, March 31, 2016

But I'm Just a Volunteer!

Yesterday I attended a book sale hosted by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. This event helps raise money for the organization and related programs.

As I entered the vast exhibit space, I was confronted by a football field of books. They were divided into categories (business, fiction, fantasy, etc.). I also observed male and female volunteers scattered around the room. They wore red and blue aprons as they unpacked books, provided information to shoppers, and rang up purchases. The book sale would not have happened without this legion of volunteers.

While I was waiting to pay for my books, I noticed an agitated gentleman across a table from one of the volunteer cashiers. I don’t know what upset him so much. All I heard were the words, “I’m sorry, sir, I’m just a volunteer” coming from the mouth of the cashier. She was doing her best to assuage his concerns. 

“I’m just a volunteer” has been ringing in my ears since I left the book sale. Why? Three reasons:

1. It suggests there’s a hierarchy at the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. It may be real or perceived, with staff at the top and volunteers beneath them. In either case, I’d surmise that the organization could improve volunteer recognition. More important, volunteers need to gain a better understanding of their role in the organization. 

2. Volunteers need better preparation to handle difficult situations like the one I witnessed. They also could have directed the shopper to a paid staff person who could better address the problem. Volunteer status is not an excuse; the goal is to serve and find a solution. 

3. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between paid staff and volunteers.  Besides, I wouldn’t expect less service from someone just because they are not paid for their work.  

I would never proclaim “I’m just a volunteer.” I believe my work is as important and necessary as paid staff. I hope the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library volunteers soon feel likewise. 

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Fear and Loathing of Followership

I spoke with a friend recently about his wife’s (Joan’s) consulting business. A solemn look came over his face when I asked about an upcoming community project. “Joan can’t get along with the manager because he won’t listen to her,” he bemoaned. “So she chose not to get involved.” Joan also decided to opt-out of another long-time commitment. The new director “didn’t have any experience in the field,” my friend noted. “He’s a super nice guy, but just doesn’t know what he’s doing. Joan has no patience for that.”

I acted surprised, as I knew how much Joan relished working on these two projects. My friend responded, “Joan knows more than the people leading the projects. She wants to be in charge. She just can’t step back, relax, and participate.” 

In other words, Joan does not like to be viewed as someone with lesser experience. She doesn’t like being a follower. She believes her talent and expertise merit greater consideration. And she’s not alone.

I realized I also had been a poor follower. I envisioned leadership and followership as polar opposites. Leaders exerted control over passive followers. Like Joan, I saw being a follower as a secondary position, a temporary resting place until I became a leader.  

That is, I saw myself as a leader and only begrudgingly as a follower. I believed I could do better as a leader. I waited impatiently until the powers that be realized that I merited a greater role. I also blanched at the prospect of receiving constructive criticism. I was headstrong, cynical, hypercritical, and adversarial.

For people like Joan and me, being a follower has meant second-class status we must tolerate. And that approach rarely endears you to your supervisor, much less your peers. As I’ve learned, leaders need individuals who want to be outstanding followers. 

The news is not all bad, as I also can see how I’ve excelled as a follower. I’ll expand on the concept of effective followership in an upcoming blog post on the topic.  

Friday, March 25, 2016

Want to be a better leader? Be a better follower (first in a series)

Leaders need followers, and followers need leaders; moreover, in today’s world we must move skillfully from followership to leadership roles and vice-versa depending on context. That said, there’s a two-fold challenge to fulfilling followership responsibilities: one, overcoming the perception of followership as secondary position and two, knowing how to be an effective follower.

I'm currently developing an online program on effective followership, and in conjunction with that effort I'll be crafting related blog posts starting today. 

I had a powerful experience in my doctoral program studying followership and assessing my skills in the area, and I look forward to sharing what I've learned here and in my online program. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Leadership as Responsibility

(On September 30, 1993 I was invited by the Department of Senior Services in the City of South San Francisco, CA to speak to the members of the Filipino-American Club about leadership. Although it's been many years since this talk, the messages still resonate with how I continue to view leadership. Here's the text of the talk.) 

What do passion, trust, curiosity, daring, integrity, and a guiding vision have in common?  Well, according to one author I whose work I studied to prepare for this speech, they represent the basic elements of leadership.

Another scholar I consulted defines a leader by what he or she does: setting goals, creating and supporting a team to achieve these goals, and motivating and teaching the members of this team. I came across another student of leadership who defined the role as a combination of consultant, teacher, and problem solver.

So what do these definitions prove?  There are many books, and scores of articles, about leadership.  Yet despite all this information there is still a lack of consensus on what constitutes a leader.  In fact, one scholarly work concluded that there are over 400 definitions of leadership.

How do the different definitions and terms regarding leadership help you, leaders and prospective leaders in volunteer organizations? In my mind, they all miss the point. They hint at, but fail to zero in on, the critical underlying element in developing a useful perspective on leadership in the volunteer organization: responsibility.  Leadership is about responsibility.

And what does leadership as responsibility mean?  It constitutes nothing less than aligning one's own welfare, one's self-interests, with that of the organization you are serving. It is to take the following rhetorical questions—paraphrased from the Biblical commentator Rashi—to heart: "If I am not for my organization, who shall be for my organization? And if not now, when?"

Let's take a closer look at how this fundamental idea of leadership as responsibility translates into three concrete principles that I urge each of you to apply in serving the Filipino-American club.

We'll start with responsibility for your own actions, seen in the context of your role as a leader.  To begin, let's take a walk back in time.  As a prospective leader, you stepped out from among the general membership, claiming yourself to be worthy of the elected position you sought. The fact that you currently hold this position and are here today is evidence of the members' faith in your integrity and ability to do your job.  You must ever strive to maintain this faith, to live up to the terms of the contract that, in a sense, you have entered into with the members of the organization.  

In other words, as a leader you must recognize that you are a role model. Every word you say, every action you take as an officer of the Filipino-American club speaks volumes, in fact echoes throughout the membership like aftershocks that inevitably occur after an earthquake. You must take responsibility for your behavior, accept its consequences, and, above all, realize that you have an enormous impact on your members and ultimately on the welfare of your organization.

Let me give you an example from my own experience as a leader in several volunteer organizations.  A few years ago I started an adult street hockey league in San Francisco, which rapidly grew from just a few men and women getting together informally every Saturday morning to well over one hundred individuals participating in a scheduled day of matches. Increasing numbers meant more rules and regulations to keep games organized and civil.  I mean civil because fights between players are not uncommon in hockey.

Our rule stated that participating in a fight would result in the player missing his or her team's next scheduled game. And wouldn't you know it, in the first season of our league I got into a scuffle with another player. The referee didn't see it—or so he said—and my transgression went unpunished at the time.  

But I was not to be let off so easily. Immediately after the game my phone began ringing, with comments ranging in tenor from mildly annoyed to irate.  How could the Commissioner of the league, the person who founded it all, get into a fight?  And, more importantly, how could he be allowed to get away with it?  

So, in the wake of this deluge of commentary, I decided to do what I probably should have done in the first place: I sat out the next game.  Having done that, the issue of my participation in fisticuffs and its consequences was never raised again.

My lesson in this episode was that not only was I not "above the law," but I was being held to a higher standard because I organized the league, because I was seen as a leader. Any other player in my situation would not have been subject to such intense scrutiny. It dawned on me that I what I said and did?as the league's organizer, and even as a player? had more importance than any other player.  

As a leader of this sports league, I was held up to a higher standard. Hence the burden, pain, suffering, and joy of being a leader, especially in a volunteer organization.

Once you realize your responsibility for your own actions as a leader in the Filipino-American club, you can move on to fulfill the second element of leadership as responsibility: the responsibility the leader has towards the members of an organization.

You have been elected to serve your members and to help them maximize the benefits they derive from participating in the Filipino-American club. I'm not so naive to believe that people seek leadership positions for completely unselfish reasons. The need to be on center stage motivates probably too many individuals to run for office. But you're doomed to fail?and miserably?if you put responsibility to your ego ahead of responsibility to your members.

If you don't care about people, you're not going to be an effective leader. Throughout my career I've had the misfortune of working for individuals who verbally abused employees to the point where they became extremely unhappy and, needless to say, unproductive.  Unfortunately, I was one of the miserable ones, and I suspect other people in this room have been too at least once in their lives.  In trying to explain his dictatorial style, one of these tyrants boasted, "it doesn't matter how you treat people.  They're always going to complain.  So, you might as well treat them badly."

It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, when companies like those run by this last gentleman continue to suffer from high turnover, and, as a result, a poor reputation. In cases like this, when people don't matter?only profits?then there is no responsible leadership, just a sad waste of talent, resources, joy, and creativity ultimately forced to seek other places to flourish.  

Responsibility to your members means you care about them. It means encouraging people to develop skills through participation in the activities of your group.  It means creating a comfortable, safe environment where people can have fun. It doesn't mean you have to spend a lot of money, or change the way your organization operates just for the sake of it.  Simply put, responsible leaders put their members' needs at the top of the organizational pyramid, not themselves and not the causes of the organization.

To conclude my remarks on this second level of responsibility, I must highlight the unique challenge of volunteer leadership: you have absolutely no authority over the members of your organization. If they don't like you or your group, they can leave, without any explanation or two-week notice.  So you need to align your interest, that of the organization, and theirs.  

This means you may have to play detective, asking lots of questions to find out what your members need and want. What activities do they enjoy?  What can be improved?  Are adequate materials presented on upcoming events?  The list of possible questions is endless, and so are the benefits when we successfully fulfill the responsibility we have as leaders to our members.

In addition to a responsibility to oneself and one's members, the leader has a responsibility to the organization. An officer in any organization is part of a tradition that stretches back a few years or decades.  Your mission should be to strive to become a vital part of that tradition by contributing to the processes and structures that have enabled your organization to thrive over the years.   

So what is your challenge as leaders in the Filipino-American Club to leave your mark on the group?  There is no lack of possibilities. Perhaps you can begin an exchange program with other similar organizations, or initiate new events, or pursue any one of a number of opportunities to infuse new life into weekly gatherings that, to some, may have passed the point of being exciting.

Walter Lippmann, a 20th century American political commentator, wrote: "The genius of a good leader is to leave behind him a situation which common sense, without the grace of genius, can deal with successfully."  Such genius, I maintain, rests firmly in leaders fulfilling their responsibility to the organization.

In an era filled with lawsuits for every reason imaginable, and the irrational desire by many to "have it all, and right away," personal responsibility seems to be the farthest thing from the minds of many.  So it's probably pretty bold of me to come before you today proclaiming leadership to be responsibility to yourself, your members, and your organization. America's problems, and that of many groups like yours, I would argue, stems from the lack of this leadership, from the absence of these three kinds of responsibility.  It is my hope that today's talk will inspire you to buck this trend, in the name of better service to the Filipino-American Club. 

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Two Losses, Three Lessons Learned

In February 2015 my father died. In March 2015 I was informed that my job was being eliminated. I was in a fog for a good portion of the remainder of the year.

Now, a year later, I’m able to articulate some lessons I’ve learned as I’ve struggled to make sense of what happened. I share here the three I consider to be the most significant.

1. The loss of a family member is a tragedy, no matter when or how. Yet each person will respond differently, and no one way is right or wrong. In other words, I can’t expect others to honor the way I grieve. I need to be grateful if they do, and accept it if they don’t.

2. Life goes on when you’re grieving. That’s the way it is. That doesn’t lessen the grief nor the need to get through it in your own way and time. 

3. I am mortal. I will run out of time. Unless I pursue with alacrity what is in my heart and what I know intuitively, I will have regrets. And that  will be a tragedy. 

I’m feeling better, and at the same time I’m a different person than I was at this time last year because of such realizations. I move forward with them foremost in my thoughts as I seek new personal and professional opportunities.