Lessons From The Leadership Underground

For about 6 years I was the president of the elementary athletic association at my kid’s school. The school couldn’t afford to operate an after school sports program for the elementary kids, so the parents started one to provide opportunities for the little guys to play baseball. When my kid started coach pitch the reigning president was stepping down, so I stepped up.

It was a terrifically easy job that appealed to every organizational and helpful instinct I had. They had no formal structure, so I wrote new bylaws for them. I filed for and got 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for the organization. I picked out uniforms, bought the equipment I thought they needed, decided on and organized fundraisers, the whole shebang. There was little to do on an ongoing basis, so myself and the Treasurer basically ran the whole thing ourselves, with little to no assistance from any of the other parents. This suited us just fine, since doing it ourselves was easier than involving others.

I thought we were cooking with gas. The organization was expanding, adding new members every year. Our growth was phenomenal. We had more kids playing baseball than ever before, with new equipment and new uniforms. Everyone was having a blast! I only realized later what a huge mistake I was making.

See, the problem with having so few people involved in organizing and running the group was that we had no oversight. I didn’t even exercise any oversight in the Treasurer’s activities, I simply assumed she, like myself, was doing everything she was supposed to and needed no supervision. I certainly didn’t think I needed supervision, so why should I think she did too? Big mistake.

Turns out she wasn’t depositing the money like she was supposed to. I only found out because a check bounced and the bank called me. She had all the money stashed at her house, but she wasn’t depositing it, and I never noticed. And because nobody else was involved in operations outside of her and myself, nobody else noticed either.

My arrogance in my abilities to handle the organizations operations without help nearly drove us over a cliff. Had I involved more people in the day to day operations, more eyes would have been on the events. More questions would have been asked. More transparency, accountability and frankly honesty would have automatically happened.

Limiting opportunities for people to become involved created other problems as well. About the time I found out about the Treasurer’s problems, I was dealing with a personality conflict between a coach and a parent. Turns out they had a long running feud going back ages that I was unaware of. Their season-long argument really poisoned the well.

Once the next season rolled around the old coach chose not to head the team again, despite the fact that the feuding parent had moved out of town. It was nearly impossible to find a new coach for that team. It wasn’t just that nobody was willing to wade into the poisoned waters, it was because no one else was INVESTED in the team or the organization. It was easier to just move their kid to another team or just withdraw them completely. It took an enormous amount of negotiation, begging and nagging to finally, three weeks before first pitch, name a coach for the team. If I had involved more people in the day to day operations of the league, I have no doubt that we could have named a coach much sooner, because people would have WANTED to help out since they had invested time and effort beforehand. As it was they had no horse in the race, so to speak, so helping out wasn’t a priority.

The realization of just how badly I was leading the organization truly hit home my fifth year. I never intended to stay longer than that; five years is about when new leadership is needed for any organization. But when I looked around to recruit a potential replacement, I realized that nobody was prepared or willing to take the job. NOBODY!

It wasn’t because they weren’t smart, hard working or clever enough. It was because they weren’t involved, i.e. INVESTED in the organization enough to step up and take a leadership role. I had never asked anyone to become invested. I had taken all the responsibility for running the organization on myself, because it was easier.

Now, I was running the organization pretty well. Finances were improving every year, the numbers of kids involved was going up at a steady pace. We had expanded beyond baseball to add cheerleading and football. Fundraising was going like gangbusters. But I hadn’t involved anyone else in the operations. I hadn’t made any other person feel invested or even wanted in the organization. In other words, I wasn’t LEADING the organization.

I had to stay a sixth year just to start putting new people in place to take over. They needed to be trained, informed, involved, and it took a year to do that. I was lucky to find a great woman who was willing to become involved and invested, and she brought in more people who worked hard, learned, and they all went on to actually lead the organization to great success after my departure.

So for future reference, I bring you today’s Lessons In Leadership:

  1. Get your members involved. Remember that, unlike work where people are trying to get that promotion or raise, volunteer organizations offer no perks to anyone in exchange for their interest. Very few members will actually step up on their own and offer to work, so identify talented people in your membership and actively recruit them to get involved.
  2. Make opportunities to get involved obvious. It’s not enough to just announce once or twice when an opportunity is available, make sure your members have a list of opportunities available to them at all times so they can go to it on their own, and promote the hell out of the list.
  3. Have an easy, clear communication system in place to announce involvement opportunities and where people can get to know one another, and, more importantly, you can get to know them. This is frequently done these days online, with Google+, Facebook, Twitter and website forums all easy ways to keep your membership up to speed with projects.
  4. Train your replacement. Never assume you or any other member of leadership will be in that position forever, obviously that’s silly. Assume someone will need to be replaced in a leadership position regularly, and make sure others are being trained in those jobs beforehand. The true test of an organizations strength is when leadership changes. If you can manage the handover with a small learning curve and no abrupt changes in direction, you can know that the organization you lead is strong enough to continue into the future, even without you.
  5. Avoid simply informing your membership of future plans and projects. Try to bring the ideas to them as “rough drafts” or “brainstorming”, and get their input. The more of themselves they see in a project, the more invested they are in the project and the organization as a whole. Plus, you encourage new ideas and thoughts that may have escaped your notice.
  6. Be transparent and accountable. If something goes wrong, fess up to the members as soon as possible and make sure you’ve outlined what steps you are taking to rectify the situation and make sure it doesn’t happen again. Remember, secrecy rarely instills confidence among members, and discourages involvement by them. They will begin to see the organization as “yours” and feel like they have no place in it.

We all want to make our organizations stronger. We should be doing what we can to learn from others successes and failures, so I hope we can all share these with one another across the board in a way that strengthens us all.

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