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. 

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