Leadership Volunteering

Leadership & Volunteering

Nothing in Nature exists for itself.

Rivers don’t drink their own water; trees don’t eat their own fruit;

the sun doesn’t shine for itself; and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves.

Living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other. No matter how difficult it is, life is good when you are happy; but much better when others are happy because of you.

The structure of our world is to give and living for each other is the universal law.

I’ve been in leadership almost my entire life. It started both in the pursuit of my doctorate in psychology and in the Marine Corps, formally trained in leadership on my way to becoming a Senior Marine Corps officer.

The Marine Corps makes a very distinct difference between management and leadership. We’ve all heard the comparison between “telling people what to do” versus “motivating them to want to do.” The Marine Corps spent a lot of time outlining how to focus on motivation while accomplishing a military mission. Following orders is one thing, but Marines need to be able to think and act while putting their lives in the balance without being directed every step of the way. The Marines focus on motivation, taking initiative, understanding, and contributing to the success of the team and the mission.  But what I really learned about leadership would not become apparent until I combined my psychological training and my Marine Corps training for the good of other members of the Corps.

A performance review given to me by a senior officer, to whom I reported for six years, started me thinking deeply about leadership and volunteering. I lead a team of officers whose task it was to develop a training program for other officers that would teach them to withstand any and all torture (psychological and physical) they might experience if captured in battle by an enemy. All had experienced ‘leadership’ in their careers in those life-threatening settings. The training program we developed is still in use in the Marine Corps today. As can be imagined, we had developed an exceptional, and very obvious, sense of pride in our team. Team pride earned us a reputation of distinction.

In my own performance review, my director had only one thing to discuss, and it was a question. He asked me, in terms of my leadership role with the other Marines, “How do you do it?”

I had no answer. I’d never thought of it before. It just was.

But as I look back and evaluate…not really.

There is a school of thought that people are born leaders. You either are one, or you are not. But I’ve seen both young and seasoned officers with little to no natural leadership ability become great Marine Corps officers. So, I began thinking about what my answer to my director’s question should have been.


The model of leadership that I learned in graduate school was a competitive model, which used a very specific formula called the Vitality Curve. It essentially allowed a manager to rank employees within a certain framework, assuming that 20 percent of employees will rank high, 70 percent will comprise the average, and 10 percent will need improvement to reach the average. This puts an employee, who wishes to be considered for promotion by achieving a ranking in the top 20 percent, in direct competition with his peers.  Which means that to be better than your peers, you must be vested in your own success, but not necessarily theirs.

But in the Marine Corps, a mission is successful if the goals are achieved. Moreover, the team is successful in achieving those goals if they do it without losing any team members. “Everyone goes home” is always the goal. This is a very existential way to view the difference between our performances when compared to that of our peers. We get no extra recognition if we survive a mission if our fellow Marine catches a bullet that I avoided. In fact, that would be considered a failure to all the other members of the team. In the Marines, each person’s success (and survival) is dependent on the success of his or her fellow Marine, and on each of those fellow Marines being the best at what they do. No one benefits by a member of the team being in the bottom 10 percent. So those Marines who are below standard receive help, training, and coaching from their fellow Marines to be the best they can be at their job.  And if you get injured in the field, fellow Marines carry you out.

Over the years, without even thinking about it, I have continued to apply that Marine Corps model with great success, because, when we think about it, this model really originated with our families, and we already apply it every day in some way with them.


Let’s apply everything I said to being a volunteer leader.

I’ve often told my fellow volunteer leaders that being outstanding, in itself, is less impressive to me than being outstanding enough to help your peers be outstanding as well. If someone has the ability to perform better than the other volunteer leaders, they also have the ability and obligation to make extra effort to help those other volunteer leaders along. Everyone should know that we care about each other individually, enough to value them helping each other. Our successes are viewed in terms of team successes where everyone shares in the reward, and everyone is vested in contributing toward team success over individual success.

No volunteer wants to be the reason why another volunteer fails. So, improving and evaluating our own leadership is a natural constant process. For the average leader, this approach can be harder than a comparison of subordinate employees against each other. It forces a leader to evaluate the team as a whole, including the leader’s own talents, and, of course, deficiencies.

For example, someone who is not performing well might improve, if formally advised through a performance review. But that person also might perform better if a problem with morale is recognized as a deficiency of the leader. A leader who can self-evaluate his or her own efforts as contributing to the overall success of the team also shows others that self-perception is dependent on their individual actions as the leader. It’s hard to do … but other volunteers notice it. Every group of volunteers must be confident that their leader isn’t more important than them, just because that one person is considered the ‘leader.’  The leader must be one with the volunteers…but performing different functions. The team is bigger than all of us! Volunteers take their responsibilities seriously only when they know their leader is dedicated to their entire team. A leader owes it to the team.

So…big question…why would a leader subject himself or herself to self-assessment at the same time volunteers are being evaluated. It has to do with character.

We’ve all seen leaders chase promotions, accolades, or titles without giving serious thought to the responsibility that comes with those things. Every great leader throughout history agrees that with leadership comes great responsibility. All leaders understand what that means. It can be superficially tempting to ignore the responsibilities of leadership and instead focus on the power of being in charge. But if you deeply understand and care about the responsibility, your character will become obvious to those around you.

I used to say, sarcastically, that an organization couldn’t pay enough to compensate a person for assuming a leadership role. Aside from the sarcastic reference to all of the thankless tasks of leadership, the reality is that a leader, as an individual, loses priority in order to serve. Leaders are not judged on individual efforts but on the work of others whom they supervise. Doing a good job is not adequate, as it is for others.

Leaders assume responsibility for the performance of all those they supervise, not just themselves. More seriously, leaders are faced with a recurring choice: Do what is right for ME or do what is right for OTHERS. Most of the time doing what is right is in everyone’s interest. However, there are many times when a leader must make a decision that furthers the interests of others ahead of his or her own personal interests.

Leaders who want to serve, to contribute, to shoulder responsibility for more than just themselves, to think of others first, to feel personal satisfaction by fostering someone else’s success are the kinds of people who are constantly weighing the value of their contribution, not the value of the benefits they receive.


Someone has to be in charge…that’s just human nature…it’s the way that we, as humans, function effectively in groups. So, we, by nature, are ready to follow someone we think is worthy.

A friend in the Marine Corps told me once that, no matter how much pressure there was to conform, she was determined to always be herself. She said that while it wasn’t always easy, she did just that. And what she thought would hold her back at the beginning of her career became her biggest asset. She cared more about contributing herself to leadership than becoming the stereotypical leader that some others expected her to be.

This matches my own observations about leadership. Others have expectations, and of course, a leader sets examples. But too much focus on the theatrics of leadership can detract from the mechanics of it: inspiring confidence.

Good leaders inspire others, not by telling them what to do, but by working together to solve problems, making their work easier, learning, and sharing as much as possible, and caring about others and their issues. This is what makes others want to contribute. Leaders learn about leadership and put their knowledge into practice. They find out what works and continue to make adjustments.

True leadership inspires confidence! Good leaders inspire others, not by telling them what to do, but by solving people’s problems, making their work easier, learning, and sharing as much as possible, and caring about people and their issues. This is what reaches volunteers and makes them want to contribute. Leaders learn about leadership and ‘practice what they preach.’  Leaders find out what works and continue to make adjustments.

Both leaders and volunteers want to know what is expected of them, to be given the tools to meet those expectations, to be understood and supported, and to have their efforts appreciated.

Each individual leader and volunteer communicates, feels, and believes in a way different from each other. This means that a person in a leadership role must focus, not on his or her own way to communicate, but on each volunteer’s method. This takes the realization that developing your own style of leadership means understanding everyone else’s style of ‘followership’. It’s about them, and leaders must feel this in their core.

A volunteer once told me that part of their motivation was that they didn’t want to disappoint the others or me. That statement hit me as deeply profound, and I thought about why for a long time.

By being yourself, thinking about other people, caring about each individual, like you do at home with your family, with your friends, and the people whom you care about, will inspire others to perform well.

We might be remembered as an exceptional leader…but really, it is always about them.

By Robert Rothwell, M.S., Ph. D.

Robert is a retired United States Marine Corps Colonel. He is the recipient of the Foundation for Community Association Research’s first annual Homeowner Leader of the Year Award. Robert has been the president of The Village Green Homeowners Association for over 10 years. He served on the board of directors and various committees for CAI Nevada, served on the CAI National board of trustees, CAI National Homeowner Council, and has been a member of CAI for 23 years.