One of the great things about joining a professional development organization is that you can get hands-on leadership experience as a volunteer; experience which, they say, will serve you well in your “real” job. Certainly that’s a selling point for such organizations and in the PR/communications field, organizations such as IABC and PRSA thrive on it.

What kind of leadership skills do volunteer leaders actually gain though? And do these skills actually benefit them in their careers, or are they simply good volunteer leaders because of skills they’ve acquired through their day jobs?

At the end of the day, is being a volunteer leader””with all the time it takes””worth it?

I recently started my term as President of IABC/Washington after having previously served on the chapter board as VP, Professional Development, for three years until a couple of years ago. Before moving to the DC area, I served on the board of San Francisco Bay Area Publicity Club and now, in addition to my duties at IABC/Washington, I volunteer on IABC International’s Accreditation Council.

Lessons in leadership

Here are three leadership lessons I continue to learn that have been assets in my own business:

1. “Decision by committee” and “democracy” are two different things.

I’m all for healthy debate and respectful disagreement. Heck, that’s why we have boards””to discuss and debate the pros and cons of decisions that will affect chapter members as a whole and, possibly, be held up by other chapters as precedents or best (or worst) practices.

But if you’re in a leadership position such as president, you’ve got to know when to close that debate and make a decision.

It’s ok if all decisions are not unanimous. That’s why boards have quorum requirements. What’s not ok is to drag on the debate until you’ve practically twisted everyone’s arm to agree with your viewpoint.

Debate the heck out of the issue, get the majority vote, make the decision (setting your ego aside, if you have to) and move on.

2. Boundaries don’t just work, they’re necessary.

It’s easy, as a volunteer, to get sucked into doing things that other board members should be doing, but aren’t, or delay on…because you’re passionate about the organization you’re volunteering with, and want to succeed. “If so-and-so can’t do it, or doesn’t do it, I’ll just do it myself.” That’s all well and good, but you’ll get very tired being Superwoman after a while.

Successful delegation is a critical aspect of successful leadership, management and growth. If you don’t learn to set boundaries on your time and activities, you’ll constantly be at the receiving end of unrealistic expectations and will burn out. So be clear about what you expect and when you expect it, and then””and this is the tough part””let your team work its way through its collective charge. You can’t do everything for everyone all the time and if you do, it’s an indication that your team has some serious weaknesses.

3. Setting benchmarks and measures of success is critical.

I write (you may have to log in to read this op-ed I wrote in PRWeek earlier this year) and present often on measurement in public relations, because that’s my field.

But measurement itself is intrinsic to the success or failure of a business””and it should be at a volunteer level as well.

Passion, by itself, does not make for success. By definition, success implies meeting or exceeding stated goals and objectives. Which means we’ve got to start at the end””what do we want to achieve? Put it in writing, and working towards it will be so much easier. And if you don’t meet your goals, there’s no shame in that. But tracking your progress will at least show you what’s working and what’s not. And when it’s time to pass the torch, the new set of volunteer leaders will be grateful for the lessons you can pass on to them.

It’s quite a ride, this volunteer thing.

It’s exhausting, energizing and exhilarating all at the same time (and I’m sure you could come up with a few choice words yourself). And it’s the very best thing I could have done for myself to grow not just in my profession, but as a leader, manager and now, business owner.

I very much hope it is for you too, and I would love to know what lessons in leadership your volunteerism have taught you.

Would you continue the conversation by leaving a comment so that we can all learn from each other?

This post – with a very few minor differences – is featured today as a guest post on Women Grow Business. Many thanks to Jill Foster for allowing me to cross-post here. And this great image, called “Out in Front,” is from monkeyleader’s Flickrstream (also found by the redoutable Jill).

Shonali Burke
Founder and publisher of Waxing UnLyrical, Shonali Burke helps purpose-driven brands bring big ideas to life. She teaches at The Johns Hopkins University, has gone back to school herself with the Harvard Business Analytics Program, and is creator/lead instructor at The Social PR Virtuoso® online training hub , where ambitious PR pros learn how to unleash their inner Social PR superheroes. Owned by Lola the Basset Hound, she's mad about ABBA, bacon, cooking, dogs, and Elvis, though not necessarily in that order. Wouldn't you like to be in her kitchen?
Shonali Burke
Shonali Burke

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