How to Grow as a Leader Through Volunteering

In recent weeks I have had several opportunities to volunteer. Since I write on leadership and personal development, I decided to pay special attention to the leadership lessons I might find. In fact, studies show that volunteerism is good for your health, reduces stress, and increases the joy in your life. Studies also suggest that volunteerism can help build your career and leadership skills.

This is what I have discovered about the link between volunteerism and leadership:

Initiative: While there are typically individuals charged with leading a particular volunteer effort, my experience as a volunteer suggests that organizations value initiative. As a volunteer, understanding the organization’s mission and the immediate goal of the project or task you are doing allows you to see beyond what’s right in front of you and identify other activities that need to be done. Taking the  initiative to determine what else needs to be done, or voluntarily jumping in to do quality control on food boxes – as one of my fellow volunteers did this weekend –  teaches you to trust your intuition and take initiative that makes a difference.

Leaders first understand their company’s mission and the team’s goals and then they take initiative to ensure success.

Flexibility: Volunteering requires nothing if not flexibility. Not enough cans of green beans for the food boxes? What else can we use to provide the same nutritional value? Supplies, number of volunteers, funding – these and many other variables can change, but the mission remains the same.

Leaders remain flexible, aware and cognizant of the bigger picture so that they can respond effectively to the inevitable changes that will arise.

Problem solving: It just so happens that the homework being done in the elementary school where I volunteer is very different than the homework I did at the same age. Sometimes this fact puts me in a position of not knowing how to help a child with his/her homework. I could walk away or shrug my shoulders with an “oh well” attitude. My commitment, however, is to help the children. To do so requires problem solving. By asking other volunteers, the teacher or by working backward from the answer,I can apply this information to the “new” math they are learning.

Leaders do not walk away from problems. They find a way to figure them out, whether on their own, with a team, or from an expert.

Leading from beside: As Karen and Henry Kimsey-House write in their book Co-Active Leadership, “…leaders beside take responsibility for their world by creating their partnership around a shared vision and intention and supporting each other’s strength to generate a powerful synergy in which the who is much greater than the sum of the parts.” The essence of volunteerism relies on this approach to leadership where we trust the volunteers around us to bring their skills and experience to complement and magnify our own.

Leaders value other leaders and align with them as they move toward the goal, knowing that they can each count on the other to bring their best and bring out the best in the other.

A desire to learn: Several years ago I volunteered with the Appalachia Service Project (ASP) which serves low income families in Appalachia who need work on their homes. One of the major projects that my team of youth had to do was a plumbing project. We had a leader with plumbing knowledge and a youth who stepped up to help him, even though she knew nothing about plumbing. She didn’t let her lack of knowledge or fear of making a mistake get in the way of her commitment to something meaningful for this family. We left the family with a fully functioning bathroom because of this young lady’s willingness to learn – in public and on the job.

Leaders want to learn and grow, even if it means learning on the job.

There are needs throughout the country for volunteers to feed the homeless, read to children, visit people who are home-bound, train seeing eye dogs, and a seemingly endless list of volunteer alternatives. Check out Volunteer Match for opportunities in your community and learn, practice and grow your own leadership skills.

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