Skip to content

Are you leading a team or a group?

Many organizations, particularly not-for-profits that rely on volunteers, can have a tendency to want to place everyone on the “same team”.  The assumption is that they’re all somehow one big family equally invested in the same mission. It can even sound like vision. The language of team sometimes works to make people feel included and attempts to create an aura of general “ownership” or a collective corporate support.   But are they really on a team?

Sometimes we say we’re leading a team, when what we’re actually doing is nurturing or facilitating a group.  Maybe a group of people with relational connections surrounded by some common interest or activity, but a group none the less.  These individuals might show up and participate in some activity when it’s convenient and when it doesn’t interfere with “more important” opportunities – because, well, they’re kind and like to help out once and a while.

The reality is that unless there is either a transactional relationship involving compensstion, or some deeply held conviction to the mission or cause, there should be no reason to expect anyone to show up consistently.  And when we depend on teams of volunteers to repeatedly execute important recurring tasks, the wrong motivation can lead to recurring dilemmas.

Prospecting for a volunteer team is much different than recruiting a volunteer to show up one time to perform a task.

A team, by definition, generally has some specific characteristics.

team is defined as a group of people who perform interdependent tasks to work toward accomplishing a common mission or specific objective. Some teams have a limited life: for example, a design team developing a new product, or a continuous process improvement team organized to solve a particular problem. › quality-resources › teams

The collective goal, is the advancement of a common mission (i.e. moving a ball down the field, or winning the game or games). Genuine ongoing commitment primarily comes from the passion for the mission, not necessarily the enjoyment of participating, the relational bonding, or even compensation.

Spectators, the fans who come and support their favorite ball club, can certainly view themselves as part of “the team” or family connected by a brand.  But they are not interdependent contributors to the game the way the players on the field are.  Fans and other stakeholders are under no obligation or expectation to show up, buy tickets, or even view a particular game.

But most importantly, what separates a team member from a spectator or relational participant in a group, is that team members have to show up in order for the game to play, and they must selflessly participate as needed to advance the mission. They feel concern and responsibility when the mission is not cared for.

-Gary Yonek

Two primary elements in a functioning team is that participants must have some level of interdependent contribution combined with a desire, ability, and commitment to show up consistently. (The greatest ability is availability.)

When developing an actual team of volunteers, one primary goal of the leader is to ignite a passion – not for a specific skill or connection with others, but a passion for the mission and greater purpose for which they are serving. Something bigger than themselves.  High capacity volunteers will sacrifice time and prioritize their effort, even without financial compensation, if they are firmly bought into the long term “why” and possess an authentic sense of purpose.  They are also more likely to continue when things get hard or frustrating, when the procedure or leaders change, or when they get bored or distracted for a season.  They must internalize the vision and personally believe that what they do actually matters. This passion (having an undying belief in a cause) can not be developed with a snappy catch phrase or quick recruitment pitch over coffee. The key to a successful, healthy, and functional volunteer team is to place the right people in the right roles for the right reasons.  Otherwise, what you often end up with is little more than a group of names on a list of those who may occasionally help to pitch in only if and when they’re available or are in need for some type of community.

  • Does your volunteer team really understand the “why” of what they’re contributing to? And do they visualize how it fits in to a long term mission of your organization?
  • As a leader can you accurately and passionately explain why your team exists and who benefits from your collective efforts? 
  • Do you regularly revisit the purpose with each team member individually as well as communicate with the team collectively to help neutralize mission drift and vision leak?

Prospecting and developing high capacity volunteers is not cheap. It takes an intentional and ongoing investment of time, energy and financial resources – in addition to building trustworthy relationships along the way.

Nothing new under the sun…

I can remember when a gallon of gas spiked to $0.86/ gal in 1979.

The US was outraged. We limited highway speeds to 55 mph, were going to move to smaller more efficient cars, were so determined to become “independent” of foreign oil with off shore drilling and an Alaskan pipeline (which did create some really good jobs for a while).

Billboard on our farm in Milan, Ohio. 1979

Yeah, seems like that lasted about 3 years. Then, despite inflation and high interest rates, the 80s kicked in with exuberant spending and credit debt, totally squashing those fuel concerns.  This is the US. We love cheap gas, big SUVs, trucks, RVs, and personal vehicles like ATVs, motorcycles planes & boats. Somehow we’re entitled. We’ve always valued these things way more than having the collective will to do what’s necessary to become independent.

Same old, same old. (And no one’s saying that importing 600,000 barrels/day of sand tar through a new pipe from the country of Canada is will somehow be cheaper.)

The US has had 40 years to become independent of foreign petroleum, just not the motivation, the domestic resources, and will to do so. This is the USA. We love cheap gas pretty much more than anything else in the world – no matter where it comes from.

Nobody “wins” Afghanistan

I once heard an interesting talk with Simon Sinek using the fall of Saigon as an illustration of an infinite game.

Basically, a finite game has fixed rules that are understood and mutually accepted by both sides and after a prescribed period of time, the game ends, the score is tallied, a winner declared, and the players decide if they want to play again.

Unlike the finite game, in an infinite game some rules may be fixed but some rules continuously change, the situations morph, the targets and “goalposts” move, and the game only ends with one side giving up the will to continue playing. There is no winner and loser. Play just stops.

(In the west we love to have the order of clear winners and losers and we passionately root for our favorite team.) Unfortunately, reality and business rarely works this way. Life is a long game filled with unexpected decisions that need to be made.

In the west we romanticize and erroneously assume that if we could just plant “democracy”, countries would naturally embrace it. We idolize freedom and independance. And we somehow believe, with little regard for other respective cultures and backgrounds, that they’ll understand democracy or have the same hunger for personal freedom as we do in the west (enough so to fight and sacrifice their own flesh and blood to earn and protect it).  That doesn’t appear to be the case.

In July of 1776 (just 245 years ago) The United States became the first country in history to be created from written and printed documents with laws, rules, linear sequential processes and declarations. Our constitution and bill of rights dictated how we would move forward – everyone agreed. And there was an over-arching consensus. Our very form of government was grounded in the rule of law. (Healthy functioning democratic societies around the globe are almost exclusively written cultures that quickly embraced the printing press in the late 1500s.)

Most eastern and ancient cultures, however, were born and evolved out of oral traditions (many hundreds of years before the invention of the printing press) and their values, processes, communities, and governments act and change accordingly. Oral cultures don’t appear to be as systematic, literate, and linear as written cultures and therefore don’t rationalize, prioritize, and think in the same logical ways as written ones. Oral cultures are historically and by nature more tribal, passionately reactive, impulsive, and often seem unpredictable and irrational.

Saigon in April 1975, like Afghanistan, fell because the US didn’t have the will and/or resources to continue playing an infinite game in another country – the ongoing sacrifice of thousands of US lives and dollars. Today, for whatever reasons, the aimless effort in Afghanistan stopped.

There is no winner or loser in an infinite game. The Taliban opponent, just like the North Vietnamese, simply had the will and drive to persevere as long as it took for their circumstance to change.

President Biden was correct. This mission, however it related to 9/11, was completed over a decade ago.

This begs the question of why we were in either country, fighting for so long?  For what and at what costs?

Percentages and Perceptions?

I’ve walked this earth the biggest part of 60 years now. Not once do I ever recall anyone, in my own circle of acquaintances, who actually became hospitalized with the common flu or cold. As someone who practiced as a federally licensed health care administrator in the State of Ohio for over 10 years, I fully understand that a small percentage of us will die from the standard flu each year. (I’ve just never known anyone in my circle of family or friends that succumbed to the flu – ever, that I’m aware of.)

Over just the past 4 weeks, several acquaintances, friends, and even close family have tested positive for Covid-19 and exhibited symptoms. Most have struggled thru about 2 weeks of feeling crappy, achey, and feverish – along with the ongoing fatigue, loss of smell and taste, and quarantine that often follows the episode of many of those who experience symptoms. And although there is not yet any practical effective treatment or preventitive vaccine, most are recovering.

Additionally, In just the past few weeks I’ve had two good friends hospitalized with positive Covid-19 results. One went home after a few days and, I understand, is recovering well so far.

The other? Well he passed away yesterday. He was my friend, my ministry partner, who faithfully served on a team of technicians and engineers that I help lead. He was a smart, creative, selfless, generous guy who loved God, loved serving others, and will be greatly missed. It’s been a sad weekend and my heart aches with loss and bewilderment today.

To date (Dec. 6, 2020) there are 14.8 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and 282,000 Covid-19 related deaths in the US.

One thing I know for sure. 100% of these people contracted this particular virus from another living, breathing human being that somehow successfully transmitted it.

Today I personally feel fine and have no reason to suspect that I am, or ever was, positive. However, that is certainly not assumed or beyond the realm of impossibility (now or in the future).

That is why I have no desire to unnecessarily breathe on anyone and will continue with the following simple practices of basic hygiene given the current circumstances:

  1. I will avoid close proximity to others especially indoors and in small spaces.
  2. I will avoid large crowded gatherings.
  3. I will always effectively cover my nose and mouth with some type of physical barier when around others. By and large we distribute this virus thru our expelling of respiratory moisture.
  4. I will wash or sanitize my hands regularly and avoid rubbing my eyes and touching my face.
  5. I will avoid all physical greetings such as hugging and hand-shaking with others outside my household.

This is how I choose to serve the people I care about and proceed with my activities of daily living.

Part 3 “Media” and the Loss of the Hero

Many often blame “the media” for almost everything that’s “wrong”. By definition the word media is simply plural for the word medium. For example written text on paper is a medium, chalk on a sidewalk can be a medium, radio broadcast is a medium, tires on a car and a glove on a hand are media. You and I can be the medium by which COVID-19 can exist and spread. Today however, what many attribute to “the media” is actually just news or the press in general and, more specifically, any information that doesn’t align with one’s personal convictions. Blaming “the media” is kind of like blaming your mistakes, poor choices, or unfortunate circumstances on a hair dryer, a snow shovel, or a piece of wallpaper.

What’s more interesting culturally is our apparent attraction and fascination with individuals who appear to have narcissistic personalities. They actually thrive in this environment. And strangely, large numbers of seemingly intelligent, otherwise kind people can so easily rally around an individual then excuse, and even defend the most rude and vile behaviors and expressions, without rational thought or serious consideration. And it’s not just with the current president. It’s also sports and entertainment celebrities, politicians and preachers. We complain, yet we reward. How diametrically different from 20 years ago when a “hero” had to earn or accomplish something meaningful before becoming a celebrity. We often support our favorite celebrities with the same blind and fervent loyalty as a local football team, regardless of whether they are successful at winning or accomplishing anything notable or selfless. Any actual accomplishment of the hero becomes questionable and is eclipsed by the continuous over-exposure or “fake it till you make it approach” of the celebrity.

The radical advance and speed of electronic technologies have contributed to the replacement of “hero” with “celebrity”. It seems narcissists thrive in our culture today because developing a brand and loyalty is the only way to acquire broad appeal in a short amount of time. Facts and content are no longer primary influences and thus no longer automatically serve as a substantially effective means of persuasion. Often facts and information are irrelevant. Fabricating controversy and dismissing all external thought as “hoax” or “fake news” seems to be the emotional currency of the day. And social media provides a powerful global platform to foster that process. It’s ironic that as our historically unprecedented, widely and equally accessible level of “free speech” gets pushed more to it’s over saturated limits, much content becomes suspect, and all thought and ideas get randomly mixed together to create one pot of overwhelmingly irrelevant noise …resulting in, well, less free speech. Such is the post modern era.

How diametrically different from 20 years ago when a “hero” had to earn or accomplish something meaningful before becoming a celebrity.

It seems that so much of the perplexing and seemingly obscure ideas that Philosipher Marshall McLuhan wrote about in the 60s and 70s regarding media theory, communications, and technologies is literally unfolding in this decade and started becoming visible around 2005. Why?

Now thru the lens of history we can get a glimpse of what he was getting at when he coined the phrase:

“The medium is the message”. For a more in depth look at media and effects from McLuhan’s 1964 writings.

%d bloggers like this: