Don’t be a Lone Ranger!

Leadership in volunteer organizations has high turnover and frequent burnout.  If you are paid staff or a volunteer in a church, civic organization, or other kind of non-business organization, you need to brace yourself for that possibility, whether it is burning out yourself or failing to find, train and support new leaders.

In describing the work of corporations, economists invented a fictional character called the residual claimant.  That’s the person, or persons, who get what’s left over after the revenues roll in and the company’s suppliers and workers and banks have been paid.  That leftover is called profit—or loss.  In a for-profit company, profit or loss belongs to the residual claimant—the owners in a privately owned company, the stockholders in a publicly traded company.

In nonprofit organizations, there is no residual claimant, because presumably there is no profit.  But there is something similar.  In these organizations, people accept various responsibilities. They may sort groceries or do client intake in a food bank, coach a kids’ basketball team or take care of the grounds, edit the newsletter or make the coffee.  But there are usually some leftover responsibilities that don’t belong to anyone in particular. It may be putting the chairs back after a meeting, or welcoming visitors, but whatever the leftover chores are, they belong to the person (or people) I call the residual obligants.  In a church the residual often the minister.  In most volunteer organizations, it’s the president, or the secretary (paid or volunteer), or some of each.  Think about the times when you were the residual obligant.  How did it make you it feel? Virtuous? Resentful? You are not alone, even though you may feel that way.

The leftover tasks that don’t seem to belong to anyone are the ones that make leaders burn out. I can’t tell you how many times I have had a call that someone has droped an obligation or needed a meeting covered. I may need to find someone to drive a member somewhere or be there to sign for a package or fill in for a missing speaker/teacher/cake provider/greeter.  I recall the time that a colleague was supposed to give a speech in a distant county, and he called in sick.  The group asked if he would send the speech and they would read it.  Turned out, not to my surprise, he hadn’t written it yet, and wasn’t planning to.  It was five days before my daughter’s wedding, and her in-laws were arriving that day, holding the rehearsal dinner three days later at my house.  I hadn’t cleaned the refrigerator.  I wrote the speech, and three of my close friends cleaned the refrigerator.

One response to the challenge of unassigned duties is a common style of leadership in volunteer communities that I call the “Lone Ranger syndrome.” For women, it might be called the Supermom syndrome.  It’s easier to do it myself than to hunt down a volunteer or pester a teenage daughter. But being unwilling or unable to delegate is a form of failure in another dimension of leadership, because part of your job is to teach people (or offspring) what it means to be part of a community or a family. 

The Lone Ranger leadership styles takes various forms.  The first is the delusion of superman. The thinking process goes like this: I know better than these fools and I can set everything straight single-handedly.  Give me advice I can agree with if you want to belong to my team, which is not really a team because I get to make all the decisions and take all the credit.

The second style might be labeled helicopter mom, a term popular familiar to college faculty and staff working with young adults. It is based on fear and the need to control. Here the thought process is like this: If I really delegate, I lose control.  The person to whom I delegated may screw up and I will have to clean up the mess. So even when I delegate, I am sorely tempted to continue to oversee, second guess, and often overrule. This style relies heavily on preventing people from making mistakes, but making mistakes is actually one of the primary ways in which we learn.

The third Lone Ranger leadership style is based on an aversion to asking for help.  It’s easier to do it all myself. Watch this person burn out.  Watch this person scare off anyone else from picking up her mantle because the job looks too overwhelming.  I have operated in that style in the past, but I hope I have learned better. 

If you think I have real people in mind, you are right. And at various times in my leadership roles, I have been guilty of at least the last two. What all three have in common is that they fail to create a sense of ownership among others and develop new leadership that can pick up the ball when it’s time to move on.  All three styles are also an invitation to burnout.

A lone ranger or superman operating style fails to build and sustain the connected web of community that can prevent or mitigate future problems and crises. So lone rangers need to be appreciated for their good intentions but schooled in the ways of community, a hard task in a society that is very individualistic. Each of us needs to look at our own operating style in leadership roles or the qualities we look for in choosing leaders. We need to reflect on how our communities—families, neighborhoods, congregations, nations—can all work better if we adopt, model, teach and/or applaud a leadership style that is intentionally collaborative.

Delegation is an important form of collaboration. It’s also the best way to avoid becoming the residual obligant. Delegating doesn’t mean that you do nothing.  You are a part of a team, and everyone on the team pitches in to make things happen.  Just don’t take on more than your share of the responsibility. If the team is sponsoring an even that requires food, bring one item. When you are functioning in your president role to conduct a membership meeting or introduce a speaker, it’s someone else’s job to set up chairs, greet visitors, or make the coffee. Your job in that moment is to be the president. The next time you are tempted to say, I can take care of that—stifle yourself. Failure to delegate is a form of enabling others to shirk.  Ask someone else. Wait for the silence to get someone to step forward. Or consider whether that particular event, or action, needs to happen at all if nobody cares enough to do it. It’s a teachable moment. Make the most of it.

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