Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Servant Leadership in an All-Volunteer Group

I had an interesting discussion this weekend with a temporary pastor of a congregation from a historically anti-hierarchical denomination.

One of the concepts we tackled was, "How do you lead a group that resists leadership from the formal leader?"

I offered, "Start with a vision." But don't provide a vision, build a vision:
  1. something that requires the group to make progress
  2. something that requires teamwork rather than individual effort
  3. something off the beaten path where leadership is needed 
I offered various forms of a-hierarchical leadership including the practice of Servant Leadership, I recommend Hermann Hesse' treatise on servant leadership, Journey to the East. These are good practices for all-volunteer organizations. Where people can contribute as much or as little as they wish, a servant leader helps maximize the contribution.

I had not offered anything to assist a leader in an anti-hierarchical organization. Now I offer: let's take On Sheep, Wolves, and Sheepdogs and turn it slantways. In this article, the author describes the role of violent people in non-violent communities. I offer a translation into the role of hierarchical people in non-hierarchical communities.

Leadership, by nature, is a hierarchical position. But where the wolf-leader stands at the top of the hierarchy, the sheepdog-leader stands aside. The wolf-leader sacrifices stragglers. the sheepdog-leader nurtures stragglers. The wolf leads the tribe to maximize the leaders's benefit. The sheepdog leads the tribe to maximize the tribe's benefit.

The risk to the sheepdog-leader is the tribe will mistake him for a wolf-leader. Avoid the trappings of leadership. Avoid the formalities of respect. Insert yourself into the visioning process, but don't insert yourself into the vision. Don't provide direction, but rather remove obstacles.

At first, the leader must lead by example and do the work no one else will. Allow for attention, recognition, and assistance in the work, but don't ask for it. Use the story of stone soup to nurture others into cooperation and eventually there will be other people for every task. At that point the servant-leader assumes the ideal form. Do nothing but serve where service is needed. When no service is needed, work ahead of the vision. Form a valley for the group to travel within. Move obstacles from the way of the vision to make that way easy and place obstacles to make other ways difficult.

Anti-hierarchical implies a preference for individuality. Individuality implies each to their own path. However, that is not what a leader is for.


  1. Some sheep will not be led...even when the shepherd is leading them in the right direction. They will ignore the leadership and plunge headlong into self-destruction. It's hard to watch.

    1. The lesson I was attempting to convey is: don't try to lead away from the cliff, but rather create a barrier to the cliff.

    2. or...

      recognizing you can't save everyone it would be important to prevent the sheep heading into self-destruction from taking others with them. the vision and reality of the pastoral valley must be greater then the thrill of the cliff.