Building Leadership in Your Group

Every adoptive parent support group has experienced a crisis resulting from the absence of sufficient new leadership. More than one group has disbanded when the “old guard” retired and no new leadership was ready to step in. Or perhaps your group is still in its initial stages and all the leadership is new. How do you encourage it, and build a team of emerging leaders ready to take their places directing the health and growth of the group?

Identifying, protecting, and rewarding emerging leaders are the steps you need to take to assure continuing leadership in your group.

“Identify” emerging leaders from among your committed members, says the Citizen Action Manual, published by the North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC) in 1980. Give your potential new leaders a job as soon as possible, and continue to use them, or you will lose them to an organization that “needs them more.” Remember that many people prefer to be asked, rather than to volunteer, to take on tasks. Asking people to assume responsible roles indicated your confidence in their abilities and will do much to reassure them that they are capable of completing the assigned task.

Protecting your new leader: Jean Illsley Clarke, author of Who, Me Lead a Group? (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1984), states that the most important consideration in building new group leadership is “protection” of the emerging leader – from criticism, fear of failure, or being overwhelmed.

“Protect” your emerging leader with a job or task description that is clear and not overwhelming. Set a reasonable and mutually-agreeable time table for the project or task. Support your emerging leader with encouragement and protection from criticism (make clear that comments should be directed to the group president).  You can also protect your emerging leaders by spreading the responsibility. Many people prefer to “co-lead” an activity as their first step toward leadership. A project or job successfully “co-led” will encourage empowerment. But don’t make the mistake of insulting your emerging leader by delegating a task to him or her and then to another person as well to make sure it gets done.

Remember to “reward” you emerging leaders with recognition in publications or speeches, personal thank-you notes, special award sessions, and any other way you can imagine. The opportunity to attend special training sessions, meetings, or conferences on behalf of the group can be a very powerful form of volunteer recognition. The volunteer’s “paycheck” comes in the form of fulfillment of individual goals and reasons for volunteering. To be supportive of your emerging leaders, you must know what motivates them.People volunteer to meet their needs, which are as varied and numerous as the volunteers themselves. Motivational theories suggest that volunteers may be seeking:

  • affiliation, such as personal interaction or making friends
  • achievement, by accomplishing specific goals, and/or
  • power, through wanting to have an impact or influence others.

Job satisfaction for volunteers comes in the form of feelings appreciated for their efforts, that they are a part of the organization, that they are accomplishing something worthwhile, and that they are making a difference. Volunteers must believe that their contributions are taken seriously. Volunteers who receive positive reinforcement will strive to do their best work, and their energy and enthusiasm will be contagious.

The Stages of volunteer growth

Paula Beugen, consultant on volunteerism for the Minnesota Office on Volunteer Services, notes that people enter into most new situations with a touch of enthusiasm and anticipation, hope and fear. To be supportive, we must be sensitive to the volunteer’s feelings and needs at any given time. By thinking about the course of a volunteer’s experience as a volunteer life-cycle, we can be in a better position to identify how we can be helpful.Beugen has postulated three primary stages in the growth of a volunteer. They are the Exploratory, Developmental and Mature Stages.

In the Exploratory Stage the volunteer is eager to get started, but feeling unsure. He or she wants to know as much a possible about the organization’s purpose and background and the specific tasks which he or she will be asked to perform. The volunteer will be thinking: “Is this a worthwhile way to spend my time?” “Can I really make a difference?” “Am I competent to do a good job?” “Will other people feel that I am the right person to do the job?” “Do I belong here?”

Current leaders should reassure the emerging leader in this stage that most people feel uncertain when they start volunteering. The first time you try a job is the scariest. Cheer for the volunteer. Recognize his or her courage in risking a new task and following through on a commitment.

In the Developmental Stage the volunteer wants to know how to do an even better job, and is busy analyzing and testing different ideas and approaches. Comment on the volunteer’s strengths and demonstrate ways to do things effectively. Coach the volunteer. Feelings of satisfaction from the volunteer position usually begin to emerge now. The volunteer realizes improved performance and that he or she is a contributing member of the team.

Sometimes the volunteer will feel undervalued or even unappreciated during this stage. You can increase the volunteer’s sense of belonging by communicating frequently, respecting his or her feelings and ideas, noticing progress toward established goals, and arranging for some recognition to celebrate recent accomplishments.

The final stage is the Mature Stage. The mature volunteer is frequently unassuming or even modest. He has become comfortable in carrying out responsibilities, intuitively knowing what to do and how to do it. This is an extremely skilled person.

Sometimes a mature volunteer unconsciously feels under or over involved. A symptom may be an apparent loss of enthusiasm. Now is the time to affirm the value of the volunteer’s current contributions. Recognize and communicate about specific qualities, competencies, and accomplishments that have been an asset to your organization. The mature volunteer, the “leader,” is especially precious.

Source: Summer 1988 Volume 1, Number 1 issue of the Adoptive Parent Support Group Leader, a publication of Adoptive Families of America. Permission to post this article has been granted by Adoptive Families of America.

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