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Becoming An Influential Leader

Becoming An Influential Leader

September 1, 2023
Howard Cohen

Leading volunteers is more about “asking” and “thanking” than “ordering.”  As we noted in earlier posts, volunteers are not your employees. They are free to decline assignments. 

A leader of volunteers cannot simply issue commands that must be carried out. Rather, a leader needs to use his or her influence to secure the personal commitment of each volunteer to take on a task that may involve considerable time and effort. 

At the same time, the leader may not be fully aware of how the volunteer interprets the request – whether it feels like a recognition of their abilities or a demotion vis a vis their capabilities and commitment. And in many community-based nonprofits, some board appointees have been assigned to serve by their employer or to represent a recipient of services or a donor to an agency.

As the default setting, we can presume that volunteers – however they arrived on a board – share the mission and goals of the organization. We can also assume that the most active volunteers also have multiple, pressing commitments outside the organization competing for their time, attention and philanthropy. 

Busy people tend to think a lot about how to allocate their effort and financial support. Given that your organization is not the only one such civic-minded individuals have committed to, some of your volunteers and board members may need a nudge to step up to an assignment or raise the priority level of their commitment. That’s where being an influential leader comes in.

Unless the leader is one of the very few exceptional individuals who is naturally and extraordinarily charismatic, becoming influential will be a cultivated trait. Actually, it is better thought of as a cultivated relationship skill than a trait. Or more to the point, as the capacity to develop multiple positive relationships simultaneously. 

A leader is not simply influential – the leader has influence (or does not) over a group of specific individuals and is not necessarily equally influential over each of them. Nor is the leader continuously influential over any one of them. Circumstances change. Influence can wax and wane. Consequently, influence is a relationship that needs to be tended and renewed more or less continuously. Becoming influential and remaining influential are not the same thing. It is a relationship that needs regular attention.

It starts with trust

So, how does a leader of volunteers work at becoming influential? A good starting point is to establish a reputation for being trustworthy. If volunteers do not trust their leader, their participation in an organization is likely to be tinged with skepticism and reserve, if not resistance. If trust is broken egregiously, the volunteers are likely to step back or even drop out.

Being known as a trustworthy person is the product of accumulated interactions with multiple people in specific situations over a span of time.

There is steadiness and consistency in the ways that a trustworthy person treats others. Trustworthy people make commitments and keep them. They do what they say they will do. The trustworthy leader of a committee or board reliably completes assigned tasks, is known to follow through and does not make excuses or blame others if the ball is dropped.

Although the reputation for trustworthiness is built cumulatively, it can be damaged by a single incident. A committee chair promises to take some action or complete a task in advance of a meeting and neglects to do so. Committee members arrive at a meeting only to be told that their work must be postponed. If this happens once it is an annoyance; if it happens again, trust is eroded. Being trustworthy means keeping your commitments. The upside is that the leader who is known to keep commitments is generally appreciated and often given the benefit of the doubt when making requests of committee members.

Showing appreciation

Having the reputation of being trustworthy is important if one wishes to become an influential leader, but it is not the whole story. Another key component of having influence involves recognizing the contributions of those you wish to influence. Volunteers need to believe that their leaders understand and appreciate their contributions. In that context, they are likely to be more open to being influenced by their leader.

Influential leaders are generous with their praise of volunteers for their good work. Volunteers may not contribute their time and effort merely in order to be recognized, but they are more likely to appreciate and pay attention to a leader who recognizes their contributions than to one who accepts credit for the group’s work for him or herself. 

With appreciation for recognition by a leader generally comes a willingness to be open to direction from the leader.

Committee or board chairs are often given credit by others for their board or committee’s accomplishments. For example, a committee contributes to a successful charitable event, and the chair is recognized on the organization’s behalf. A team of committee members drafts a successful grant proposal, and the chair is offered thanks. Occasions when others single out a board or committee chair for recognition are common enough, but they also offer the opportunity for the chair to share recognition with the volunteers who made contributions. A chair who wishes to be influential should take these opportunities to publicly recognize the work of volunteers. Leaders who are generous with praise grow their capacity to be influential.

Committed to fairness

A third element of becoming influential is to develop a reputation for fairness. A reputation for fairness goes a long way when there is disagreement among a group of volunteers, and the leader must make a decision that will not keep everyone happy. Though the leader of volunteers who disagree with one another cannot keep them all happy, the leader needs to keep them all engaged. Each of the volunteers must be made to feel that they have been heard and that their views have been taken seriously and have been given fair consideration. The most straightforward way for a leader to accomplish this is through the management of airtime at group meetings.

Managing airtime means assuring that everyone who wishes to speak on an issue has a chance to be heard and that no one individual or small number of people is permitted to dominate a discussion. Failure of the leader on either front will engender a sense that the leader is being unfair (or is incapable of being fair). Leaders can get ahead of this danger by making the rules of discussion explicit and known in advance. One good rule is that nobody is permitted to speak again until others who have not spoken, and wish to, are given the opportunity. 

The chair can affirm the speaker (e.g., “That’s a good point.”) and then ask if there are others who also wish to comment. Another tactic for managing airtime is to avoid the trap of commenting on each point made by a discussant. Instead of expressing agreement or disagreement with each speaker, the chair should ask who else wishes to comment. 

Any appearance of a chair being a favored participant in a discussion rather than its moderator will likely generate feelings of unfairness.

This is not to say that the chair may not speak on an issue – only that the chair must be careful not to appear to be favoring his or her own ideas. A chair with a reputation for fairness has a better chance of guiding a group of volunteers to a desired outcome than one who is suspected of being manipulative. When it comes to leading volunteers, it is better to be fair than to be brilliant.

This is Part 3 in an ongoing series of posts by Dr. Howard Cohen on managing volunteers. 

Read Part 1, “A Tale of Two Teams,” here.

Read Part 2, “Managing Volunteers Part 2: To Keep Board Members Engaged, Put Them To Work!” here. 


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.