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The Single Best Way To Develop Leadership Skills

You might learn a great deal in school, but it’s doubtful that you’ll actually develop as a leader by reading a book or taking a course. The military is right about experiential development: People grow and become leaders by making a commitment to a cause, and having personal responsibility and accountability.  

For those of us in civilian life, there are also ways for us to develop as leaders through experience: through volunteer service. There are myriad nonprofit missions from which to choose, roles and positions in which to engage that are meaningful and productive, and paths for personal and professional advancement.

Nonprofit board service is particularly compelling for business people and professionals seeking to develop as leaders. While the CEOs and staffs of nonprofits build and run programs and services, boards of  directors provide strategic and financial leadership to ensure each organization's vitality, integrity, and fulfillment of its mission. Business people who bring valuable skills and experience as well as diverse backgrounds and perspectives are uniquely equipped to help regional, national, and global organizations to achieve success in addressing poverty, education, health care, conservation of natural resources, and other key issues.

Through nonprofit board experience, business people participate with the CEO in envisioning an organization's greater potential, creating the revenue model, and achieving success. In fact, nonprofit board service is the ultimate experience in ethics, accountability, leadership, group dynamics, and crisis management and communications.

Here’s the secret to making the most of a service experience:

  1. Choose a cause that's meaningful to you, and where you like the people. Determine how you can be useful—whether helping with strategic planning, inviting friends to a fundraiser, serving on the advisory council, or serving on the board. If you'll be serving on the board, be clear about what will be expected of you so that you can fully commit yourself.
  2. Be open to opportunities to raise your hand and say, "I’ll help." Before you know it, you could be chairing a committee, and eventually perhaps serving as a board officer. (And women, take note: When it comes to nonprofit boards, there's rarely a glass ceiling.)
  3. Be alert to potential mentors—on the board where you serve and among your friends and colleagues. Talk with other people who serve on boards to share experiences, lessons, and advice.
  4. Always remember the mission. It must be at the forefront of your mind as you participate in discussions and make decisions.
  5. Be generous with your time and your contributions. 
  6. Help to recruit and mentor the next wave of volunteers to assist in developing them as leaders.

Once you get involved, you’ll be surprised at how aware you will become of who's a thoughtful leader who gets things done, and who's not. Whom you want to emulate, and whom you don’t. And then books and various readings on leadership development and board governance will become more meaningful in light of your personal experience.

Having volunteered since I was 10 years old, built and run a nonprofit enterprise that engaged tens of thousands of corporate and community volunteers in service to hundreds of nonprofits, and consulted to global corporations on corporate social responsibility (CSR), I’ve seen firsthand the power of service in fostering leadership development. Most of the hundreds of business people I’ve trained and placed on boards have ascended to board leadership positions; the key has been that the match was right, and the board candidate was committed and ready to say, "I’ll help."

Through service, you have tremendous opportunities to develop as a leader, become a more valuable professional where you work, and make a meaningful contribution in improving your community and the world.

[Image: Flickr user The U.S. Army]

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  • Job Ibex

    The key to successful leadership is accepting the fact that the world changes around us and to coup with it, we need to stay on the lookout for new knowledge.

  • Alice Korngold

    Hi Deni,

    Here's a Fast Company post I wrote last year that might be helpful  If there's a volunteer center in your community that provides some kind of board-matching service, that would be great.  Also, ask friends and co-workers if any of them serve on boards to learn about their experiences and see if there are needs and interests where they serve.  So, basically, I'm saying...networking!

    The key is finding an organization where you really care about the mission; finding out what they need on the board in terms of experience and expertise; finding out the challenges that the organization/board is facing and how you can help; understanding what will be expected of you (including in terms of meeting attendance and financial contribution); getting a sense of the culture-fit between you and the organization/board; etc.

    There are so many amazing nonprofits that are eager to have qualified board candidates who are enthusiastic and willing to serve and add value!

  • Deni DEasy Boekell

    Great blog, you've convinced me board service is an invaluable opportunity.  Any advice on how to get a position on a non-profit board?