The Art and Science of Leadership Development

There was a time when professionals participated in training seminars and volunteer leaders had seminars focused on lay leadership development. Becoming a volunteer leader was not a matter of being elected to a board of directors or being appointed to a committee of the board. A volunteer leader was someone who understood not only the responsibilities involved in working with and for a non-profit organization but also someone who had a understanding of what it meant to occupy a leadership position in the community.

Today when chief executive officers (CEO) and presidents of boards discuss building a cadre of leaders for their organization they are worried about whether the people they would like to invite will say yes. More often than not the concern is how busy people are and how little time people seem to have to volunteer to work for the community. There is a perception that the fewer the demands that are made on prospective volunteers the greater the chance of their accepting invitations to join a board or a committee in a non profit organization.

The motivation is to attract those people who are perceived as being most appropriate to serve on the board. Sometimes a decision is made not to make “too many demands” on their time, and then filling the position takes precedent over their demonstrating necessary leadership skills. If a desired perspective board member might be an excellent candidate for a seminar focused on lay leadership development, however, the question is whether they will have the time to attend the sessions.

In addition to the pressure on people’s schedules, there is also a feeling that asking an accomplished adult to attend a series of workshops to assist them in developing their skills in working with other volunteers can be perceived as insulting. Often it is taken for granted that anyone can chair a committee or preside over a board of directors. After all is there really a special body knowledge or specific skills that one needs to be a volunteer leader?

Even when board members are open to training and to participating in a seminar or workshop there is a question about the CEO’s knowledge of the subject and experience in training volunteer leaders. There was a time when most executives would either train their volunteer leaders who engage an appropriate person to lead a seminar or workshop in leadership development. In larger non-profit organization there would be a professional responsible for leadership development programs.

As budgets became tighter and as time became more precious these programs were either scaled back or phased out in many organizations. When setting priorities for non-profit organizations some professional and lay leaders viewed leadership development programs as a luxury and would cut the programs in order to reduce expenses. These programs were not income producing and were seen as expendable given the financial situation the organization was facing. This approach is often “penny wise and pound foolish.”

There is nothing wrong with being “bottom line” oriented, however, there are trade-offs for each decision made when developing a non-profit organization. It would be interesting to examine organizations that required a six or eight session orientation seminar for new board members as compared to those organizations that did not require new board members to have any “in-service” workshop. I would speculate that the organizations offering such an experience would have better educated and more committed volunteer leaders.

A time-limited and focused seminar could provide an opportunity for new board members to learn what is expected of them in their roles as volunteer leaders. In other words, exactly what are the obligations and responsibilities of volunteer leaders on the board of directors. Simultaneously, they would also have the chance to understand what it means to be an example to others in occupying a leadership position.

Specifically, what does it mean to chair a committee of the board and how does the chairperson assist in developing the skills of the committee members? What behaviors are to be supported and encouraged and when does a committee chairperson have to confront members who may be inappropriate? What motivates others to assume responsibility for initiatives undertaken by the board of directors? These questions and others could be discussed in introducing new board member to the way the agency’s board of directors operates in implementing its responsibility for overseeing the organization.

Over the last several weeks I have discussed the importance of the partnership between the CEO and the board of directors. This can only be accomplished by both partners having a clear understanding of their respective roles. It is not sufficient for there to be an understanding of what each one has to accomplish and the CEO has to be prepared to assist the volunteer leadership in acquiring the skills necessary for them to fulfill their responsibilities. The investment in volunteer leadership development will prepare people to fulfill their responsibilities and strengthen the organization at the same time.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Leadership and Philanthropy Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening non-profit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.