Lead like you lead volunteers

· August 30, 2016

Have you ever said something profound and deep?

No - me neither… or rather not on purpose. Sometimes though, when I look back I both realise that some things I said was actually pretty good - and also that I didn’t really understand it when I said it.

I wanted to share such a moment with you and then explain why I think it was actually pretty good.

In this post I suggest that you should:

Lead like all the people in your team/org/companies are volunteers

The one time…

A few months back the Salvation Army in Sweden changed the territorial leader - in Salvation Army speak the Commissioner of Sweden. I happen to know both the going and coming (a couple) commissioners pretty well and really appreciate them as leaders.

However the going commissioner, Marie Willermark, was of particular help to me and my family when we lived in Indonesia. Someone asked me to say a few words at her farewell meeting, as one of the non-employed members of the Salvation Army, Sweden. I gladly accepted.

As I prepared I was thinking about what the challenges would be, in a job like Commissioner Marie had, and what I thought that she had done exceptionally well - because from where I stood she had been an excellent leader of the Salvation Army.

The Salvation Army of Sweden is pretty small and the number of employed people in the church are even fewer. I’d say that out of all members in the church maybe 5% are employed.

Now imagine that you want to lead that group in a new direction. You have no formal power of people like myself, because I’m not on “order” or obligated to do whatever the church leader say. I’m doing this because I want to and on my spare time. If I don’t like the direction I can easily just stop coming or do something else with my time.

These thoughts went around in my head and I ended up not deciding exactly what I was going to say on the day. So when I stood on the podium I just blurted out:

How do you lead a bunch of volunteers like myself and get them to move in the same direction? In my mind there’s only one way; always keep pointing to the goal and encourage, develop, inspire and support the people in the organisation to be creative in finding ways as to how to get closer to the goal

I think Commissioner Marie has done this in a wonderful way.

After the farewell meeting some people came up to me and thanked me for what I said, and in particular that little paragraph. I was a bit embarrassed since it to me just felt like something I blurted out - although it was very true for the leadership style (as far as I know) of Commissioner Marie.

Why I think this is pretty good

However, a few months after I said it, I happened to think about that day and it dawned on me that it’s actually a pretty good leadership advice:

Lead like you would lead volunteers

A volunteer doesn’t get paid, it’s all based on inspiration, love and joy in the work we are doing. Take that away and you’ll loose the incentive for a volunteer to do a job, be part of a club or work hard in a church.

But help these people to evolve, feel pride, feel needed and important in their service and a group of volunteers can move mountains. This is the triggers that Dan Pink talks about; autonomy, purpose and mastery.

  • A volunteer is more autonom per default since the connection with the organisation is, in a formal sense, vaguer.
  • The mastery comes in evolving in doing the things we like to do - for example I spend on average 1 h per day practicing my euphonium with no one telling me to do so, no monetary incentive in sight. It’s all just because I love to play my instrument and I want to become better
  • The purpose is the part that a leader can supply - making sure that we know where we are going, making the why clear and meaningful. In doing so I will soon feel like i’m part of something bigger than myself and my drive to work will be stronger.


Just by asking “What if the people working here didn’t have to work here?” we will probably start to behave differently in how we lead. As it turns out, many of the people that are important to our companies could probably get another job if they wanted to. So the actually don’t have to work here. In fact no-one does.

But I often see people treated as they have to work here. I often see people working here although they don’t want to.

Lead as if all you people where volunteers

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