The Insights of Leading Volunteers and Peers

Leading peers and volunteers can be daunting for many people because it’s a much tougher ‘audience’. However, if you turn it around and apply the insights of managing volunteers and peers to your regular role, you may find you get even better results.

For most people, leadership involves a vision, a group of people and a means to move toward that vision. And for most people in a leadership role, that means of moving toward the vision is based on some kind of authority, persuasion and managerial skill. For example, if I want to change my organizational structure so that we can become better organized, the means of moving toward that new structure requires some authority to decide on the new structure, influencing others around you to go through the change, and the managerial skills to orchestrate the change.

For a business context, authority is usually clear and this may go a long way in helping you to influence others, i. e., the boss can call the shots. However, leading volunteers or a peer group presents a slightly different set of challenges. My first two leadership roles were managing a group of my peers though significant organizational development changes, and managing a volunteer team of competitive athletes through the development of new, highly political, race rules for the sport. In theory I had ‘authority’, but in reality it could easily be undermined. In my experience, peers are less tolerant of direct leadership styles (unless they can see that the situation absolutely demands it), and volunteers will stick with you so long as they are happy and motivated. If the ‘vibe’ doesn’t suit them any more, they can be right out the door.

This then leads to the issue of persuasion. In a position with clearer authority, it’s much easier to ask someone to do an undesirable task because usually they are getting paid to do that. But when it’s volunteers, there is something else at stake. If you don’t tread carefully, you’ll be the only one left! And if it’s peers, if you don’t tread carefully, you won’t have any friends left. Therefore, the situation offers an excellent opportunity to fine tune your persuasion skills.

Research suggests that personal power bases (expert power and referent power) are more effective than formal power bases (coercive power, reward power, and legitimate power) (1). Therefore this means that being seen as an admirable person, using rational persuasion and/or being an expert in your field is what will help you to influence others.

When I was in charge of a team of athletes, I was far from an expert in the field, therefore I had to rely on either rational persuasion, or referent power by gaining their trust for what I stood for as a person. I decided to take a highly consultative approach as we contributed to the development of new race rules for the sport. I involved everybody in the decisions and acted like a facilitator rather than a decision maker. This very quickly built trust. But also, it soon became apparent that not everybody cared about every decision. Therefore I gave people the option to ‘opt in’ and then determined whether they just wanted to be informed along the way, or an active part of the discussion. In many ways, not being an expert was my strength because it meant I relied on the others to help guide the decision making. This resulted in the trust that I wouldn’t ‘shoot from the hip’ with my decision making. Rather they knew that I would come to the experts and get advice.

Similarly, when I led a group of peers through organizational development changes, I had slightly more expert power due to my tenure in the role. Because the nature of what we were doing was a highly logical exercise, I relied heavily on rational persuasion to help guide the development of processes, knowledge handbooks and training programs within our team. That I didn’t need to rely on any of my formal power bases kept the friendships running smoothly.

Upon reflection, these early leadership experiences were significant in forming my leadership style today. Whilst I have the ability to employ more directive tactics where required, I often find myself in charge of a group of experts and naturally find myself using personal power bases to lead those teams with good effect. There are no uncomfortable inferior/superior power dynamics because I genuinely appreciate my staff and they genuinely appreciate me. It’s an honest exchange based on rationality and trust, just like my days of managing volunteers and peers.

1 – 2011, Robbins, Judge, Millet, Boyle, Organisational Behaviour  p370, Pearson Australia

The Secret to Developing Cooperative Leadership

I’m sure that most of us have had a boss at some point in our lives whom we didn’t like. I immediately think of the ones who pre-judged me, or who treated the staff like we were stupid, or who simply wouldn’t listen to the subject matter experts because they thought that leadership meant bossing people around. Since there is a wealth of books on leadership and management, a highly profitable market, it follows that there is a scarcity of good bosses. That organisations are prepared to pay good money for leadership development is also, I believe, an indication that many organisations recognise the disastrous financial and social impacts of bad bosses.

Despite the relatively recent leap in training opportunities and growth in the field of knowledge regarding leadership, we still have organisations that cultivate terrible bosses. Why is that? I have a theory and I’m going to use Causal Layered Analysis by Sohail Inayatullah to identify where I think the problem lies and what we can do about it. It’s a little bit heady, but please bear with me because the insights can be revolutionary for your leadership development.

CLA iceberg

Causal layered analysis implies that with any situation, there are multiple layers to reality which need to be understood if you want to effect lasting change.

The first layer is called the litany. This is usually a superficial understanding or statement of the problem, often the visible aspects, newspaper headlines, and metrics. For our leadership example, it might include, the financial cost of bad leadership, any of the newspaper headlines during the collapse of Enron, high employee turnover rates, stress related health issues, or the ratings that people give to their CEOs on

What is the litany in your organisation? What are the tangible positive and negative impacts of your leadership style on your staff and performance outcomes?

The next layer provides a systemic and often more academic understanding of the structures that lead to the visible outcomes in the litany. Systemic causes of poor leadership and/or performance outcomes might include hyper-competitive cultures, lack of trust, understaffing, systemic prejudice, lack of equity and diversity training, insufficient leadership development, etc. Most organisations will try to resolves issues at this level and whilst it might be more impactful than a band-aid fix at the level of litany, it might not be long before problems start to creep back again.

For example, in one organisation I worked for, I was called in to advise a manager who was giving childless staff on his team greater travel opportunities than those with children. With all good intentions, he thought he was doing the right thing by allowing the parents to spend more time with their kids but this led to poor team work, jealousy and injustice. The underlying systemic cause was a lack of leadership development to help him tangibly understand his obligations for fairness by giving people the right to make those choices themselves.

What systems and policies are in place in your environment? Do they promote healthy teamwork? Do they promote an environment where people can get along and respect each other despite their differences? What are you doing to improve these systems?

The third layer is that of worldview. Here the underpinning philosophies and values are examined for the ways in which they might be contributing to the problem. For example, a friend of mine noticed that her boss would ask her about her children (but never her work) and would ask male members of the team about their work (but never their children). This subtle use of language and conversation implies that he has an inequitable worldview that values women only looking after children and men only being at work. From a leadership standpoint, this layer represents the first layer that each of us can make impactful change in our leadership style and one which organisations can align their values with.

For leadership to be cooperative, a cooperative worldview must be present in this third layer. In my experience, terrible bosses typically have a ‘subordinated cooperation‘ worldview whereby they see their relationship with you as akin to master/slave, superior/inferior, or perhaps powerful/powerless. By contrast, ‘coordinated cooperation‘ recognises that whilst we may not be the same, our diversity enriches us and that we can come together and work with mutual respect, no matter your authority or position within an organisation. If organisations do not make changes at this layer, then no matter how many systemic solutions they find, an underlying worldview of subordinated cooperation will always lead to bad bosses and outcomes.

The fourth and most powerful layer of reality/change is that of metaphor/myth which describes how a problem or culture feels. Metaphor and story are deeply connected with culture and vision and can effect long lasting change. For example in the United States many people believe in ‘The American Dream’, or in Australia, ‘The Lucky Country’ which arouses an emotional reaction that goes well beyond a clinical depiction of vision. The emotive nature of it means that it often bypasses the rational brain, allowing for deeper change at a ‘gut’ level. This is also part of the reason why organisational identity is so hard to change through rational persuasion. You need to inspire people through story and imagination so that it sinks in deep.

Metaphors for leadership – Seagull manager: flies in, makes a lot of noise, poops on everything and then steals all the good chips.

Whilst an organisation may implement a program to inspire a new worldview (the third layer), culture eats strategy for breakfast and myth/metaphor will always win. For example, if an organisation has an ‘eat your young’ culture or metaphor, cooperative leadership will be next to impossible to establish. Instead, a ‘nurture your young’ metaphor will be needed to support a cooperative leadership culture. Efforts can be focused on changing the underlying metaphor through more ‘right brain’ techniques such as the telling of organisational stories, neuro-marketing techniques, and images that communicate a new vision by symbolic means.

Thus the secret to a cooperative leadership culture lies in the metaphor/myth of an organisation and what it values. Ultimately this comes back to the leader’s ability to stand up for what they believe in, despite the culturally accepted practices around them. Do you see your employees as minions who carry out your every command? Or do you see people as your equal whereby despite your outward role differences, you are like a bird flapping its two wings (e.g., managers vs. employees) in coordinated cooperation?

Which Side are You On? Moving Beyond Gender Wars

In recent times I’ve noticed a lot of people using ‘feminist’ as a derogatory slur. This is somewhat perplexing because as John Scalzi points out in his blog post ‘To the Dude bro that thinks he’s insulting me by calling me a feminist’, a feminist is someone who thinks that women deserve the same rights and opportunities as men.

Why doesn’t everybody want this? Did I miss something? Are these men and women who use ‘feminist’ as a slur, scholars of philosophy who have realised how the limitations of social constructionism and post-structural thought impact modern day feminism? Or have they been listening to a bit too much Rush Limbaugh and Alan Jones, who are deathly afraid that women are going to ‘Destroy the Joint’ by booting men off the ladder and relegating them to the lowly rank of… well… many women (and non-whites, and non-Christians, and non-hetrosexuals etc)?

I propose that the issue is one of mismatching paradigms. When we talk of patriarchy, it refers to the vertical system of a dominating pecking order that is traditionally led by men. When we refer to feminist ideals, it does not seek to dismantle the pecking order so as to establish a new one with women at the top. Rather, it has a horizontal outlook and takes issue with the whole idea of a pecking order, which happens to be quite problematic for many men too. Namely the men at the bottom of it.

Subordinated cooperation in a nutshell

Subordinated cooperation in a nutshell

Interestingly enough, these two ways of thinking even end up in the language differences in little boys and little girls. Deborah Tannen undertook numerous linguistic studies and found that generally speaking, little girls in the USA bond through being the same and telling each other their secrets (I have a dog, too!), while little boys bond by bettering each other (I can hit the ball to the moon!). But we also isolate each other through similar means. Women will hurt each other through exclusion, and men through putting each other down. From this stand point, it makes sense that many men, who only really know the pecking order paradigm, are deathly afraid of being kicked off their perch or put down by women. Similarly, many women are afraid, I think, of excluding or feeling separate from the men in their lives. They don’t necessarily realise that feminism has a different agenda: to create a round table.

Aside from the underlying paradigm mismatch, words such as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ seem to further confuse matters. If I am a woman with stereotypical ‘masculine’ traits (decisiveness, rationality, objectivity, etc) should I be insulted? Or should men with stereotypical ‘feminine’ traits (generous, nurturing, cooperative, etc) be insulted? Does ‘feminism’ mean that we can only embrace our feminine selves at the expense of masculinity? Or should we be embracing both our masculine and feminine selves no matter our gender?

Whatever your answers, I propose that feminism needs to adopt a non-gendered frame that enables greater solidarity and understanding of the injustices at hand. Specifically, the frame of subordinated cooperation and coordinated cooperation, as described by Indian mystic and philosopher, P.R. Sarkar. This lens transcends the limitations of gender based language and instead focuses on the nature of the harmful power structures at play, particularly how we treat one another. Furthermore, it offers a new way of understanding other power related issues such as racial equality, workers’ rights (and responsibilities), prejudice and systemic privilege.

Subordinated cooperation is based on a master-slave relationship while coordinated cooperation is when two different entities come together to work with equal rights, prestige and standing. Of course, this is not to say that hierarchy is necessarily bad. We can have a hierarchy that works from a base of coordinated cooperation whereby a supervisor may treat a subordinate with dignity and respect as they work towards common organisational goals and fulfill their potential. It is not the structure as much as the relationships and capacity to fulfill one’s potential that are important here. I may have more skills or a greater intellect than you, but that does not necessarily make me a better human being. And if we get back to the basics of human experience and what you might wish for on your death bed, I would go so far as to say that what matters most is the radius of your love, not where you stand in some socially constructed pecking order or, perhaps, your contribution to economic slavery.

Thus, IMHO the women’s liberation movement (and every other liberation movement for that matter) needs to adopt an articulated goal of coordinated cooperation. This is where despite our differences (remembering that diversity is the law of nature), we are working towards a common goal in a way that not only values the different contributions that we make, but also our capacity to fulfill our potential individually and collectively.

Do we as individuals treat each other with coordinated cooperation? And do our systems treat each other with coordinated cooperation, or do they privilege one group over another? Whatever the answer and however you want to slice our population, a society that confines the development of various groups in relation to others is like a bird with one wing. It can’t take off and reach its potential. So, which side are you on? Coordinated cooperation or subordinated cooperation?