EVERYONE is a Volunteer

Leading a robust enterprise calls for endless creativity. However, managing people is another story altogether.


I'll not pretend that this one insight will change your universe, but, I will hold it up as one of the most significant frameworks for leadership I've ever discovered. It changes the way I enter conversations every day. It changes the way I try to manage people. And, it gives me a compass for navigating so many situations that could be frustrating.


First, let me back up and start with a personal confession.


I’ve spent my adult life working in and with churches. That translates into more than four decades recruiting, leading, managing, motivating, and linking arms with volunteers. Volunteers are rockstars and working with them is amazing. Here are women and men with demanding lives who choose to invest their free time to make good things happen for others. However, it wouldn't be honest to say there haven't been plenty of frustrating days, too. Days that felt like herding cats. Moments when other options trumped voluntary commitments. Times when productivity wasn't the highest priority.


On those days, I looked over the fence to the greener pastures of “normal” workplaces and felt jealous. It felt like the power of the paycheck would make it so much easier to keep people on task, on time, and accountable for their work.


I mean, employees have to “shape up or ship out," right? If they want to get paid, they have to fly right. Volunteers, on the other hand, have calendar conflicts, have their own way of doing things, and can be hard to hold accountable to standards of performance. After all, they are volunteers, right? In the church, sometimes people have acted like their sacrificial labor imbues their preferences or opinions with extraordinary weight. Certainly leadership is easier in the for-profit sectors of the world. Right?

Until it hit me one day—and, here comes the breakthrough insight—at the core, everyone is a volunteer. It doesn’t matter if they get a paycheck or not.

That’s right. Everyone is a volunteer. Even you!


Every employee makes a willful decision every day to volunteer their best effort or withhold it. Everyone chooses to align their priorities and focus with the larger mandate and mission of your organization or not to. Cooperating with colleagues doesn't happen by accident, it comes from a choice to do so. People can be physically present, but mentally, emotionally, or willfully absent. Any of us can be standing up on the inside, though we are sitting down on the outside.


Every day, at every turn, everyone of us decides how much of ourselves we are going to give to the work at hand. That decision is a voluntary decision. No one else can make it for you.


So, what does that mean for you and I as leaders?


It starts by re-orienting and reconsidering the way we exercise authority. There are four kinds of authority and only one of them comes from the power of your position.*  If you are the boss, you can choose to swing the big stick of power. Sometimes that is a wise move. But a big stick leaves people bruised and beat up. The real challenge of leadership is to cultivate internal motivation. *[See, "Four Types of Leadership Authority."]


Ask yourself, what does it take for you to become motivated and engaged?


Motivation is nurtured on multiple levels. It starts in the kind of environment you create for your people. It flows from how compelling your vision and mission is? It requires that people are clear about the the unique contribution of their role to that mission. It begs questions about how adequately are people resourced? How connected are they to supportive relationships with their colleagues? What kind of rewards or recognition do they get for the effort they put in?


Whether the people you lead are your employees or purely volunteers, if you would build an environment that would effectively empower volunteers, you will create an environment that will bring out everyone’s best.

The answer to, “How can I get the most out of my people?” is actually found by flipping the question. “How can I pour the most into my people?”

Why not take a step back and ask yourself, how am I deliberately trying to pour into the lives of the people I lead these days?


Your Thoughts?



Go deeper: Check out a series of posts I wrote a while back on, “How to Create an Empowering Environment.” 

  1. Give them a Compelling Reason

  2. The Power of Clear Responsibility

  3. Give People Essential Resources

  4. Leaders Need Community

  5. Who Has Your Back

  6. Is it Safe to Fail on Your Team


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© 2020 by Gary Mayes