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Leadership versus Management

Over the past few years I’ve been getting increasingly concerned about some of the language that folks in the voluntary sector are using.   In particular, there has been a creeping reliance on the terminology of the workplace.   In the organisation in which I volunteer, it’s commonplace now to talk about ‘line managers’, ‘targets’ and ‘key performance indicators’.     And I know I am prone to using the same language in my day job, which is running an organisation which relies upon volunteers.    But there’s something about this that just doesn’t quite seem right.    And I think I am beginning to understand what it is.

Don’t get me wrong.  I would be the first to stress that I, and many of my colleagues within the sector, have talked a great deal about the need to run charities in a more business-like way than perhaps they’ve been run before.   I remain committed to doing just that.   We are accountable to our trustees, our donors, volunteers, beneficiaries and the general public for using the funds we raise efficiently.   We ARE running businesses.  It’s just that, rather than making widgets, our product is about changing lives for the better.

But when it comes to working with volunteers, I think we’ve begun to miss the point.

Volunteering is not a transaction that’s the same as employment.  It shares many of the same characteristics – there’s work to be done, relationships to care about, goals to achieve – but the basic drivers for getting involved are different from day-to-day work.    Money doesn’t change hands.   And whilst there may be a feeling of moral obligation to get work done, a volunteer is not bound by a contract of employment.   A volunteer can walk at any time.

So ‘managing’ volunteers is difficult.   Just the word ‘managing’ feels wrong to me.    It suggests a relationship that’s hierarchical, transactional and procedural.   And that doesn’t feel right when describing volunteering.

Of course, things have to get done.   But should we be ‘managing’ the volunteers with whom we work?

Or should we be ‘leading’ them instead?   Inspiring them.  Motivating them.  Thanking them.   Celebrating their contributions.

(And, come to think of it, shouldn’t that actually be true for everyone in an organisation – whether they’re employed or a volunteer?)

Maybe the answer is that, at least in the voluntary sector, we should endeavour to manage tasks, but lead people.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that the language of the workplace is acceptable, but it should be the language of the enlightened workplace.   Targets are fine.  They help us to know whether or not we’ve achieved something.   Key performance indicators are fine too; they help us to know how far we’ve travelled.   But these all help us to manage tasks.   Our people deserve to be led – and to lead.

By definition, managers have subordinates.  Managers have a position of authority vested in them by their organisation, and their subordinates work for them and largely do as they are told.

Leaders do not have subordinates – at least not when they are leading.  They have to give up formal authoritarian control, because to lead is to have followers, and following is always a voluntary activity.

Leaders inspire people to follow them.   They then manage tasks in partnership with the folks around them.  They show how following them will lead to people achieving their hearts’ desire.

For those who like lists, here’s one that I culled from a variety of internet sources as to what those hearts’ desires (or motivations) might be:

Achievement Help others Develop new skills
Recognition and feedback Make a difference Meet new people
Personal growth Find purpose Explore new areas of interest
Giving something back Enjoy a meaningful conversation Impress your mum (my personal favourite!)
Bringing about social change Connect with your community Expand your horizons
Family ties Feel involved Get out of the house
Friendship & support Contribute to a cause you care about Make new friends
Feeling of belonging Use your skills in a productive way Feel better about yourself
Feel needed Get to know a community Demonstrate commitment to a cause/belief
Share a skill Gain leadership skills Act out a fantasy
Do your civic duty Satisfaction from accomplishment Keep busy
To have an impact Learn something new Help a friend or relative
For escape To become an “insider” Assuaging guilt
Be challenged Be a watchdog Feel proud
Make new friends Explore a career Help someone
Therapy Do something different from your job For fun!
For religious reasons Earn academic credit Keep skills alive
An excuse to do what you love Feel good Be part of a team
Gain status Test yourself Build your cv
To be an agent of change Personal experience with problem, illness, or cause To stand up and be counted

Perhaps then, we need to be looking for individuals with a strong charisma who enjoy attracting people to a cause.

Perhaps we need to be looking for individuals who are good with people, who give credit to others (and take blame on themselves).

Perhaps we need to be looking for individuals who inspire loyalty.

This does not mean that we shouldn’t pay attention to tasks – in fact we need to continue to be extremely achievement-focused. But we need to recognise the importance of enthusing others to work towards our organisation’s vision.

Perhaps we need more leaders and fewer managers.

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  1. Thank you for this, really interesting and thought provoking. As well as being a BSL I am about to interview for a paid role which includes recruiting and supporting volunteers so this is timely too.

  2. David David

    Well considered article, it doesn’t always follow a good business leader can transition to the 3rd sector. Leading and motivating volunteers is worlds apart from employees.

  3. Mike Mike

    Excellent piece John. So what chance of TSA getting away from all the talk of managers…once upon a time we had group scout Leaders, now group managers. Time to bring back the original title? The clues is in the third word……But it’s not all about titles, we can all think of recent examples of TSA dictating things (use of Compassis but one) and treating volunteers as “staff” to be dictated to. Let’s hope this piece may convince TSA to re think…. What ever happened to the scouting pyramid?

  4. Stuart Stuart

    It’s important that the training doesn’t “manage” the Leader into a manager. Good leaders need the right support act to cover off the task management thing, as too many leaders and not enough managers is just as bad?

    Balance is key.

  5. Danny Danny

    The piece is excellent and reflects what a lot of leaders at grass roots level are aware that you need to lead and listen to others and take on board what is being said. A lot of our leaders are ordinary people, housewives, plumbers, electricians, joiners, middle managers etc. and are in scouting to assist, encourage and facilitate young people. They have a lot of different skills which go together to make up the Group and they learn new skills by meeting leaders from other Groups. So can our training of new leaders reflect what is needed within a Scout Group.

  6. Great article – some interesting ideas. One of the problems in modern management is that a lack of formal management training often leads to confused ideas about what it is to be a manager. At least three of the ten roles of management identified by Mintzberg are about interpersonal skills – people stuff. The stuff that leaders do. They just rarely have the time or ability (or often both) to do it well.

    I think that, whilst attractive, the concept of managing tasks and leading people oversimplifies things. Leadership is about assessing readiness to follow and adapting our leadership style to the situation. At all levels of leadership – regardless of what title we are given (or adopt).

    I must admit, I don’t have much experience in the voluntary sector – every time I try to get involved I am immediately turned off by the beauracracy that comes with it. What I always assumed was poor management. So this was quite thought provoking for me. However, I also think most businesses forget that many paid staff are actually motivated by the same things that you list – lack of money demotivates but money alone is rarely enough to inspire great things. Maybe you are right, but maybe we just need managers that are better at leading. It is, after all, part of their job as well.

  7. A very thoughtful post. Thank you.

    Those being led are often strong, self reliant, full of potential and willing or even needing to make a contribution to the team, function, discipline, organisation and society.

    There is always a hierarchy in any group/team and those who are accountable for others and focus as suggested in managing tasks and develop and deploy the interaction skills that engage, value and lead people develop deeper relationships and as a result better experience and results for everyone.

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