Earl’s Guide to Leadership Development, Part 1: Leadership in Volunteers

Ivy HestHow-To, Skills and Principles, Theory

(About 4 minutes to read)

Earl is one of my favorite people that I’ve encountered in this work.  Earl is a 73 year old man who spent all his life in Boston.  He directs 5 gospel choirs and is the leader of his tenant organization.  And his tenant organization is one of the strongest I’ve come across— meetings have about 1/3 of the building in attendance (at worst), there’s lively discussion, and they get things done.  They even have a 50/50 raffle (his idea, of course) where the winner wins 50% of the income from the raffle, and the other 50% goes to the tenant organization, where they throw parties or buy leather couches (in a Housing Project).  Earl knows every tenant in the building and has a personal relationship with each of them.  I asked him to give me a CD guide to his favorite music— to which he responded with 5 CDs because he just couldn’t stop at one, he got too excited. He giggled in excitement most of the time I spoke to him about writing this article, though he wanted me to be sure I am fair and critical of his work as well.  Sorry Earl, not this time!  Oh- and he’s blind.

PersonFallingOffLadderThere are three senior/disabled housing developments that are called the “Three Sisters” because their architecture was identical and they had the same manager, all about a block or two from each other in the same neighborhood.  However, it felt like Goldilocks and the Three Bears when I visited the Three Sisters.  One building had one tenant keeping their tenant organization active, but for the most part the Housing Authority ignored this building.  There were no big problems, they didn’t complain loudly, and so they just skated by.  The second building was what everyone in the housing world considers one of the worst buildings in the portfolio.  They had Big Momma, a pimp who ran a prostitution ring out of her building.  Drugs were rampant and there was an arsonist setting fires to objects in the building.  To top it all off, while their manager spoke English and Spanish, most of the other language speakers were Chinese and couldn’t engage with anyone else.  And finally, the third building was Earl’s building, a beacon of hope.  Clean, friendly, and well-managed, both by the manager and the residents.

I needed to learn from Earl.  I had to understand why, when the conditions are virtually the same in all three buildings, did his shine so brightly?

He was prepared with an answer.  He actually shared with me what he called his Leadership Development Strategy— what he believed was the secret to everything.  Here’s his strategy:

  1. Find someone who isn’t very engaged.
  2. Tell them that since he’s blind, he’s going to need some help setting up the room for a meeting.  Then they can leave, they don’t need to stay for the conversation.  Just help him out.  Do this for a few weeks.
  3. When they’re regularly showing up just to help Earl set up the meeting, ask them if they’d also be willing to go door-to-door and pass out flyers for the meetings beforehand.  Do this for a few weeks.
  4. In the meantime, start talking to them about what the meeting is going to be about, without asking them to come.  Just say “Hey, we’re talking about the MLK Dinner Celebration.  What kind of food do you think we should have this year?” and leave it at that.
  5. After a few weeks, ask the person to come to the meeting and talk about what they were just discussing.  Then they can leave.  If they’re not comfortable speaking up, ask them to come and make sure that Earl is presenting the information the way they want.  Sometimes Earl intentionally messes up the info if he thinks they’ll speak up and correct him.
  6. Ask them to sell raffle tickets during the meeting and do the drawing, which requires them to stay for the whole meeting.
  7. Ask them to fill in as Note-taker when someone’s out.
  8. Get them to join the Board.

And it works.  They have new leaders all the time.  Everyone feels like they have a role, from making the coffee to rounding up the people beforehand, but veterans are familiar with his leadership development strategy and will gladly give up their role to encourage new leadership.  He wanted me to know that he’s no longer the President of their Tenant Organization- leadership was passed on to someone who served as Secretary when we was in charge, and mostly got involved because Earl asked her.

In organizing, we call it the leadership ladder, where individuals ascend to higher levels of leadership as they spend more time demonstrating their leadership ability.  Lots of organization skip the leadership ladder, and suffer for it.  They get excited about someone and have them run something quickly- and usually that leads to burnout or for the person to disengage immediately.  If you’re not invested yet, why would you stick around?  People are smart- they know when no one else will do the job you’re asking them to do.  Unless they’re invested in the “greater good” of the organization, they’re going to run the other way.

I’ve messed up the leadership ladder a few times, particularly with Judy, who was new, young, and smart.  She approached me and the President of our Chapter and asked what she can do to get more involved.  The President got excited, blurted out “well, we’re looking for a Treasurer”, and Judy said yes, without knowing much about the organization.  I smacked the President, but it was too late.  Judy was passionate, but when she started not feeling well, you can guess what was the first commitment to go.  We were excited, and we went for it.  And we burned her out just three months in to her term as Treasurer.  Now we can’t even get her to come to a meeting, because she feels like she let us down and doesn’t want to feel embarrassed.

New blood is exciting.  But it’s also really exciting when you watch someone develop over time, building into a strong leader who understands why their leadership is so important.  Earl began as a silent observer in the organization, and worked his way up.  Because of his work, he understands the importance of developing others, and makes it his mission to line up ladders of leadership all over his building.

This is Part 1 in a 2 Part series about Leadership Development.  Click here to read the thrilling conclusion!

Your turn: How do you develop leaders?  Share your story!

Earl's Guide to Leadership Development, Part 2: Leadership in Staff
When Grassroots Organizations Get It Right