You Are Not The Boss

A couple of years ago, I had an interesting conversation with a dear friend, Ade, who at that time was a middle manager in a financial institution. He had been appointed to a leadership role at church and he sincerely wanted to succeed. What he couldn’t figure out was how to get other members of his unit to be punctual, and to bring their “A-game” every week. He was always putting out fires. Most of them were compulsive latecomers; and when they show up, there will rather socialize than get the job done. 

Ade was always overwhelmed. Most weekends he had to do most of the work himself or beg other unwilling members of the church to help. His pastor didn’t say anything, but he could tell the man was disappointed in him. After several months of struggling, he gave up. He told the pastor he couldn’t cope; he gave his busy work schedule as an excuse. The pastor accepted his resignation and shortly after, appointed another person to lead the team. 

Ade felt relieved, his life was back to normal; but deep within, he could not shake off this nagging feeling that giving up was the wrong thing to do. A few weeks later, relief gave way to regret. James his successor was leading the team to new heights. He seems not to have any problems with the people, as many of them started showing up early on Sundays, and new members joined the team. Ade felt ashamed and confused at the same time. He couldn’t fathom how James was effortlessly succeeding where he had failed woefully (even though he considered himself more competent).

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Ade’s dilemma was what led to our interesting conversation. He wanted to know why his excellent performance at work did not equal an excellent performance at church. But this was not my first conversation of the sort. Over the years, I have seen a lot of well-intentioned people struggle with leadership in a non-profit environment despite their stellar career in the secular. Rather than consider what they may be missing, many are quick to conclude that the problem is with the people at church. 

My advice to Ade is summarized in this simple but deeply profound statement: 

Compliance is not the same thing as followership!

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There is absolutely nothing wrong with the people at church. The people at work and the people at church are the very same persons, but their motivations are different. Sticks and carrots motivate them at work, but outside of work, their only motivation is fulfilment. At work they comply because they must – they need the benefits and they dread the consequences, but at church, they follow only because they want to, and they have nothing to fear. At work they are employees, at church they are volunteers. At work you are the boss – bosses tell people what to do. At church you are not the boss, you should be a leader – and leaders show people what to do. Leadership is influence.

It has been established that no organization on earth requires authentic leadership like the church. Those who succeed in leading volunteers are ardent students of leadership, and leadership is hard work. It is both mentally and emotionally demanding. This perhaps is why a lot of people struggle with it. Ade and some of my friends see volunteering at church as a philanthropic activity – something they do by the side. They fail to realize that when you are a leader in a church, it means you work full-time for two different organizations. Most people are not psychologically prepared for this, so they buckle under pressure.

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To succeed at leading volunteers, you must embrace leadership as work. You must make space for it in your heart and on your schedule. You must take out time to develop your leadership capacity. Read books and articles on leadership, attend leadership seminars, broker relationships with credible leaders so that they can mentor you. And over and above all these, practice the principles of leadership intentionally.

When it comes to leading volunteers, your heart is more important than your head – EQ is more valuable than IQ. To lead people successfully, you must see them differently, and serve them diligently. When people see that you genuinely care, they respond by giving their best to your cause.

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