Learning Leadership on the Fly – Part 1 of 3

By Tom Davidson

This blog series discusses three things you can do to develop your leadership skills, including what I cover in this post: volunteering!

Leadership is an art that needs to be learned from hands-on experience more than anything else, yet most technical experts are thrust into their first supervisory jobs don’t get their first training until their mid-30s! By that time, they have been practicing whatever leadership skills they learned as children, role modeled from their parents or bosses (good, bad or ugly), or picked up accidentally through life experience. Unfortunately, this leads to poor skills, bad practice, and a narrow range of skills and perspectives that will limit your leadership career.

Therefore, don’t be an accidental leader. Take control of your leadership development on purpose and early, keep it up over time, and help others do the same. This blog series discusses three things you can do to develop your leadership skills, even if your organization is not directly investing in this part of your career development. They are:

• Volunteering
• Stretch Assignments
• Teaching Others

Some of the best leaders are born out of the experience of leading true volunteers, people who don’t have to do what they’re told, don’t have to show up for work the next day, and have their own unique reasons (that don’t involve pay) for being in the workforce. Anyone who can mobilize true volunteers like these will be miles ahead in their leadership skills when they have to lead others in a paid environment.

In fact, the brave new workforce of today is very much like true volunteers. They don’t have to work for you, they don’t plan to stay for long, and they don’t usually respond to traditional command and control leadership styles. There’s no better training ground for future leaders. So here are some choices for you to consider:

1. Leverage what you’re already doing. If you’re already volunteering in your church or community, put that experience to even better use, not just for them but for you. Step forward for new or different assignments that stretch your skills. If you have a small job, ask for a bigger one. If you have as big job, ask for a different one. If you are bored with your job, find another organization that values your contributions and is willing to put your skills to their highest and best use.

2. Volunteer inside your current workplace. Virtually every organization has the need for internal volunteers to run employee events, coordinate United Way campaigns, or support training or teambuilding initiatives. You might not get paid more money, but you will get paid in experience, skills development, certifications, and resume builders. Keep track of your time and what you learn, as these will be valuable fodder for future job interviews.

3. Volunteer outside your current workplace. Every community is starving for volunteers, not just the obvious places like firefighting, athletics, and food banks, but non-paid roles in schools, animal rescue and community development. Look for a cause that you’re passionate about and get involved; you’ll be surprised how much responsibility will be thrust upon you and how much you’ll learn about yourself and how to mobilize others. Look for something related to your subject-matter expertise, or look for something you know nothing about. You’ll get different learning from both kinds of assignments.

One of the best lessons in management I ever got was from being a volunteer firefighter; it was worth more than four years of MBA School. As a lieutenant in a rural fire department, I had received the training but never experienced a fully involved house fire with real homeowners, real possessions and real danger. Luckily, the chief arrived just before I sent other firefighters into the home with hoses blasting. I had nearly made matters much worse by applying solving wrong problem. It wasn’t a fully involved house fire after all, and I nearly ruined a family’s home, possessions and life. Now that was a management lesson I never forgot!

If you want to learn to lead, then learn to lead volunteers.

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