I’m a member of a volunteer search & rescue (SAR) team and recently had the opportunity to speak to the annual retreat of the Appalachian Search & Rescue Conference on the topic of leading volunteers. What follows is the script (loosely followed) for my remarks, and while applied primarily to volunteer leadership, the concepts and principles are, I think, more broadly applicable.
I came to SAR following a combined commissioned and civilian career with Uncle Sam’s Air Force, in which I was fortunate to participate extensively in the Air Force’s leader development programs. My career included the opportunity to attend senior service school in residence, and spend about 20 of my 33+ years in first-, second-, and third-level leadership positions. This commentary will offer up four vignettes on leadership derived from that background, extrapolated and applied to the slightly different challenge of leading volunteers. I say “slightly different” because, whereas the fact that our members are unpaid volunteers and not paid careerists does make some difference, ultimately people are people and when we talk about leadership, we’re really talking about people.
First, an important disclaimer: While this presentation is experiential, it is also aspirational. I’m not arrogant enough to stand in front of you and try to convince you that I always live up to these principles, but I assure you I try. It might be helpful to think of this as a vision for leadership – some goals we should aspire to, recognizing however that we are all flawed and will from time to time fall short. Also, this presentation focus more on organizational and strategic leadership than in-the-field tactical leadership, although there will be some references to the latter. Finally, we’ll be talking about leadership, not management – while complementary, they are most definitely not the same thing. Understanding the difference is something I think the military probably does as well or better than any other major segment of our society, an understanding I wish was better exported and applied in other endeavors.
The Leadership Environment
For our first vignette, I want to talk about what I think of as the leadership environment. This is the “ecosystem,” if you will, in which leaders lead, and it’s composed of people, resources, the mission, and numerous other factors, all unique in some way to your organization. Of these, the most important factor in leadership is people – leadership is fundamentally about getting other people to do certain things in certain ways to achieve specific goals. First and foremost, to be a good leader it is essential to understand people, and especially so in a manpower-intensive activity like SAR.
Every individual is unique, so every SAR volunteer will be equally unique and uniquely motivated. When we talk of motivations, we often group them into bins of extrinsic, or external, motivations that come from outside the individual, and intrinsic, or internal, motivations that come from within. A common extrinsic motivation might be, “I need money to live, so I’m going to find a job that pays me a living wage.” On the other hand, intrinsic motivation might be more altruistic, like, “I feel good when I help other people, so I’m going to join my local SAR team.” It’s probably a good first order assumption that more SAR volunteers are intrinsically motivated than extrinsic, but that’s not necessarily so. What about the person who might be somewhat insecure and needs external positive reinforcement to bolster their self-esteem? Might someone like that also seek that by joining a SAR team? Or the opposite: Someone who needs to reinforce their ego by proving their superior outdoor knowledge, skills, and abilities to others, and needs to be recognized as such. Might someone like that also join a SAR team? Those would be examples of non-material but extrinsic motivation for getting involved in SAR. We’ll talk more about the importance of understanding motivation in a later vignette.
(You can read more about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation at: https://www.verywell.com/differences-between-extrinsic-and-intrinsic-motivation-2795384 )
That leads us to leadership style. Lots of people have written lots of stuff on leadership styles over the last several decades, but a concept I like and would like to introduce here is the Transactional to Transformational leadership spectrum. I use the word spectrum because this isn’t a binary issue: It’s not about being either a “Transactional Leader” or “Transformational Leader,” it’s about understanding what they are and being able to lead from anywhere on the transactional to transformational spectrum as specific conditions require.
Transactional leadership is the world of carrots and sticks, rewards and punishment, “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Transactional leadership operates on the lower levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and gets people to do things by rewarding positive behavior and/or punishing bad. At a very basic level, paying an employee to do a job is transactional leadership: in exchange for coming to work and doing your assigned tasks, I will pay you wages. Bonuses and awards for exceptional performance are also transactional, as of course are punishments. Transactional leadership tactics can be very effective with people who are primarily extrinsically motivated, but can backfire badly if applied to more altruistic, intrinsically-motivated people (more on that later…).
Transformational leadership, on the other hand, tends to be more effective with the intrinsically motivated. Transformational leaders seek to inspire and motivate subordinates by linking them to a shared set of values and goals. Transformational leadership involves leading by example, modeling desired behaviors, and creating an environment that allows subordinates to achieve their own personal goals and self-actualization in ways that align with and support organizational success. The ultimate expression of transformational leadership is to be the kind of person others want to emulate. Transformational leadership can fail, however, when subordinates do not share the organization’s goals and vision. One of the best ways, then, to create a transformational leadership environment is to actively involve as many of the organization’s members as possible in developing goals and vision.
I’ll wrap up this first vignette with this: In my experience, most leadership failures occur when leaders do not accurately assess where on the transactional-to-transformation spectrum they need to be, and use leadership tactics that are misaligned with the attitudes, beliefs, values, goals, and motivations of their work force.
(More on transactional vs transformational leadership here: https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-management/chapter/types-of-leaders/ )
In the next three sections, I’m going to off up three guiding principles for your consideration and discussion. These are not the be-all and end-all of leadership, but they are three things I took from my education and experience that I think are especially important. These statements are somewhat provocative (by intent), but I hope they will provoke deep thought and good discussion.
“If It Isn’t In Writing, It Isn’t Policy”
Harmonious, high-performing organizations, like harmonious, high-performing choirs, sing from the same sheet of music. In the previous section, we talked about the importance of transformational leaders inspiring and motivating team members by linking them to a shared set of values and goals. In addition to values and goals, establishing unity of purpose and unity of effort are also important to fostering fellow-feeling, a sense of belonging, and team harmony. In other words, ideally you will have everyone in your organization singing from the same sheet of music. Achieving this can be challenging in any organization, but especially so in volunteer organizations where participation in meetings, training activities, and operations can be inconsistent and sporadic.
In order to sing from the same sheet of music, everyone on the team has to have the same sheet of music. In organizations, that “sheet of music” is your constitution, by-laws, rules, standards, guidelines, expectations, goals, objectives, values, and vision – all of which need to be clearly understood by your team. For brevity, let’s call that collection of ideas your organizational policy & doctrine. In the volunteer environment, with the aforementioned inconsistent participation, the best way you can facilitate that understanding is by putting your policy & doctrine in writing, making it readily available to your members (your web site is good for this), and doing your best to make your operations and training consistent with it. Verbal instructions, meeting minutes, power point presentations, etc., while useful tools are not enduring policy – policies need to be instantiated in by-laws, Standard Operating Guidelines (SOGs), manuals, or other formal documents to give your volunteers the best opportunity to sing from your organization’s sheet of music. Bottom Line: If it’s not written down, it’s not official policy. Getting your policy & doctrine in writing is challenging enough in full-time jobs, but even moreso for volunteer groups – but even more important. Let me make one thing clear, though – I’m not advocating formal written policy for everything you do; there can be great value in leaving space for creativity, flexibility, adaptability, and improvisation, and over-scripting everything creates organizational rigidity that can be stifling. As organizational leaders, you’ll have to decide how much and for what issues you’ll need formal policy.
Let’s spend a moment on the possible effects of inadequate policy & doctrine on volunteers and volunteer organizations. A colonel I used to work with was fond of the phrase “juice to squeeze ratio,” an analogy for benefit versus cost. People generally prefer to do things where they perceive the “juice” (benefits) they receive is worth the “squeeze” (costs) they put into the activity. Benefits and costs can be tangible or intangible and are measured by each individual on his or her own scale.
Have you ever had the experience of being new to an organization and not learning the way they expect something to be done until you did it differently and someone corrected you? How did that feel? Did it make you feel motivated, inspired and a part of the team? Or was it discouraging or demoralizing? I’m betting on the latter. In a paid situation, organizations can survive occasional incidents like that because of the transactional nature of the employee/employer relationship – the juice (pay) employees get makes putting up with the squeeze (frustration, criticism, etc.) worthwhile. With intrinsically-motivated volunteers, however, it won’t take too many experiences like that to lead them to decide the juice isn’t worth the squeeze and they’ll find something more rewarding to do with their time, or at best reduce their participation. None of us are over-populated with volunteers, so we can’t afford to drive any away by frustrating them with a leadership environment characterized by “the-only-way-you-learn-the-right-way-is-to-do-it-wrong-and-get-corrected”.
The absence of official policy & doctrine leaves a vacuum that will be filled by personal preference, myth, and lore. Leadership by personal preference, myth, and lore will at best be confusing and at worst demoralizing for new members. It’s extremely important that, once you’ve established official policy & doctrine, all leaders commit to adhering to it and modelling it in their own behavior – failure to do so can lead to significant conflict within the team.
A related phenomenon to the myth & lore problem is that experienced and highly-competent practitioners of any activity tend, over time, to lose touch with how little beginners actually know. This can lead to assuming beginners know more than they do, creating unreasonable expectations possibly making beginners feel incompetent, clueless, or ineffective, leading in turn to diminished morale that decreases that juice-to-squeeze ratio. A thorough set of written policy & doctrine, made available to new members and followed by leaders, can help minimize this risk. A member handbook, issued to new members when they join, is a great way to begin the process of teaching and acculturating your members to your organization’s policy & doctrine.
My last point on this topic is that developing your written policy & doctrine does no good if they aren’t effectively deployed throughout the organization. That’s often the hardest part, and leads me to the topic we’ll discuss in the next session.
(You can read more about the importance of putting it in writing here: http://www.chiefexecutiveboards.com/briefings/briefing210.htm )
“If you’re not teaching, you’re not leading”
We ended the last session talking about the importance of effectively deploying organizational policy and doctrine throughout your organization. While putting that policy & doctrine in writing and making it available to your members is necessary, it is not sufficient – no one would expect a choir to sing in perfect harmony just by handing them sheet music and having them perform the songs without rehearsal, and no one should expect an organization to function harmoniously without rehearsal. In addition to developing your policy & doctrine, you must teach it, rehearse it, model it, and reinforce it.
In the previous section we talked about the demoralizing effects of the “the-only-way-you-learn-the-right-way-is-to-do-it-wrong-and-get-corrected” effect. In my experience, adult learners do not like to feel clumsy, awkward, or incompetent, so it is incumbent on leaders to do their best to avoid situations where that can happen. While new members sometimes come with relevant experience and well-developed skills, often they do not – and it is the latter that in my view we are at most risk of alienating and driving away if leaders fail to also be teachers. Also, even with the former, we still must teach them our organizational policy & doctrine in order to fully assimilate them into our team and establish cohesiveness and harmony.
“Teaching” comes in many forms, and is not just the responsibility of official Training Officers and certificated instructors. All leaders have a responsibility to teach and mentor junior, less-experienced members, and it’s the informal, day-in, day-out mentor/mentee or peer-to-peer knowledge-sharing relationships that are perhaps the most effective teaching tools we have. Teaching comes in many forms, including but not limited to:
- Formal, structured, didactic courses
- Individual or small group sessions
- Field and tabletop exercises and simulations
- Modeling desired behaviors – there is no place in leadership for “do as I say, not as I do.” Followers emulate leaders.
Some key points I’d like to emphasize:
- Know your policy & doctrine and adhere to it – don’t confuse beginners with personal preference, myth, and lore. Yes, there are many viable options for ways to do many tasks, but offering too many options too early can be overwhelming for new people. Give them effective tools they can master early, and allow their breadth of expertise to develop over time.
- Empathize with your new people – experienced people who have attained a high degree of proficiency in any endeavor sometimes lose touch with how difficult basic tasks can be for beginners, fail to teach them adequately, and risk becoming frustrated with them.
- Teach, don’t criticize – you cannot expect anyone to do anything they haven’t been taught, and criticizing behaviors you haven’t taught is unfair and demoralizing.
- Re-teach and practice – you cannot expect learners to remember everything they’re taught only once, and psychomotor skills especially require frequent practice to maintain proficiency.
- SAR is a “high acuity, low demand” (HALD) activity in comparison to other emergency services; we cannot count on frequent operations to keep us sharp.
- Many SAR skills are perishable, even for avid recreational outdoorspersons – you’ve got to use ‘em or lose ‘em.
Final thought on this topic: Learn to Teach; Teach to Learn. The more you teach, the more you’ll learn yourself, both in lesson preparation and in the interaction with others – keep you receiver on with its gain high even while you’re transmitting. It’s amazing the things you can learn when you think you’re teaching.
(More on teaching here: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/mentor-youre-teaching-leading-jon-aponte/ )
“If you treat everyone the same, you’re not leading”
This is the principle that usually provokes the most negative initial response – some people immediately interpret this as advocating favoritism or unequal enforcement of rules. That’s understandable, but it’s absolutely not what I mean.
Let’s go back to the introduction, where we discussed the importance of transformational leadership that seeks to inspire and motivate subordinates by linking them to a shared set of values and goals. So how do you inspire and motivate people? We talked about intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation, and we discussed some of the reasons people might be motivated to join a SAR team. Most importantly, we talked about how we are all unique individuals, with our own set of beliefs, values, priorities, strengths, weaknesses, talents, and other personal attributes, and are uniquely motivated to do what we do. This principle speaks to that uniqueness, and the importance of leaders understanding their followers and interacting with each of them as individuals. To be a good leader, you must understand people, and you must understand each person as an individual and interact with them in a uniquely individual way. If you lead a group of 20, you have 20 separate and distinct interpersonal relationships to develop and nurture. All of us deserve to be treated as individuals – good leaders know this, and learn to motivate and inspire us by aligning organizational objectives and performance goals with our individual strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, and values.
In Senior Service School, I had the opportunity to listen to the late Dr Otto Krueger, an expert on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Otto was talking about some of the differences between introverts and extroverts and differences in their motivations, and relayed a story (perhaps apocryphal) about an employee of one of the big-box retail stores. This lady had worked there for decades and had a perfect attendance record – she’d never called in sick or been tardy or otherwise missed a scheduled work shift. A new manager took over the store, full of business school ideas, and wanted to find ways to reward his top performers both to encourage their performance and perhaps motivate others. When he found out about this lady’s perfect attendance record he called a meeting of all the store employees, brought her up front, and presented her with an award and a bonus for her attendance record. Sounds like a good thing, right? Well, it turns out this lady was a profound introvert, hated being the center of attention, and was intrinsically motivated to be a good worker. For her, being placed in a spotlight like that in front of all her other co-workers was mortifying, so you know what she did? On her next scheduled workday, she called in sick – she wanted to make sure nothing like that EVER happened to her again! The manager tried to do a good thing, but it backfired because he did not know this employee as an individual and treat her accordingly.
Another example – this one may be a bit of an over-generalization and sexist, but it does help illustrate the point: Mike Carey is the head coach of the West Virginia University women’s basketball team. Prior to taking the job, Mike had only coached men’s teams. A reporter once asked him about the differences between coaching men and women, and Mike replied that he had to learn to be very careful how he said things. If he had told a men’s team, “Some of you aren’t hustling enough,” he’d assume every guy on the team was thinking, “Man, coach sure is pissed at those other guys.” But if he said the same thing to a women’s team, they’d be more likely to think, “Oh, no, I know he’s talking about me and I’m going to be benched.” Like I said, it’s an over-generalization, but it is something Mike said that goes straight to the point of understanding people, understanding their differences, and interacting with them accordingly.
My last example is personal: When I was a young analyst for the Air Force, I was pretty prolific and after a few successful early projects got pretty confident about what I was doing, especially my ability to write effective intelligence reports. OK, I was getting cocky – I admit it. My first senior intelligence analyst was a man named Dave Ritchey, who understood and implemented the “individualness” of leadership very well. There was another analyst in a different shop that I worked with regularly, but she was much more uncertain about what she was doing than I, and lacked my confidence. One day she and I were talking to Dave about a recent report she had written that was very well done and impactful, and Dave just looked at her and said, “See, I knew you could write better than him” (nodding his head in my direction). I don’t normally advocate those kinds of comparisons, but in this case Dave knew that she needed positive encouragement and that I perhaps needed a little of the wind taken out of my sails and that one statement served as an effective motivator for us both. However, if he’d said exactly the same thing to me about her, the effect would’ve been the opposite.
So, don’t play favorites, don’t have different rules for different people, but don’t treat everyone the same, either – get to know those you lead as unique individuals, and interact with them uniquely… as they deserve.
(You can read more about this concept here: https://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/how-to/growth-strategies/2014/02/treating-employees-fairly-not-the-same.html )
So here are my take-aways from all this; some concepts I think will serve us well:
- Strive to be transformational
- Put your policies & doctrine in writing
- Know your people as individuals and treat them individually
 Policy is guidance that is directive or instructive, stating what is to be accomplished. http://www.doctrine.af.mil/Portals/61/documents/Volume_1/V1-D03-Policy-Strategy-Doctrine.pdf?ver=2017-09-13-150321-400
 Doctrine is authoritative, but unlike policy, is not directive; it is a storehouse of analyzed experience and wisdom. http://www.doctrine.af.mil/Portals/61/documents/Volume_1/V1-D03-Policy-Strategy-Doctrine.pdf?ver=2017-09-13-150321-400