Snowplough Leadership and Volunteers

A few ideas to kick around if you lead volunteers, or just want to play with Snowplough Leadership

I’ve recently taken a step-up in an organisation I volunteer with, so that I’m now leading other volunteers and we had a great time at the weekend, introducing some much-needed new people to the programme. It’s also mid-winter here now and is snowing heavily and I’m a little concerned about the journey my first coaching client is making to get here today. What a great time then, to have a brief rethink about one of my favourite leadership concepts – Snowplough Leadership – and how that might relate to leading volunteers.

Snowplough leadership is the simple idea that, as a leader, your main job is to:

  1. Shovel stuff out of the way of your team, so that they can get on and do what they need to do; and
  2. Make sure they’ve got enough grip on the road to move safely and swiftly to where they need to get to.

When it comes to leading volunteers, my experience is that these simple leadership functions become even more important. Time, motivation, skills and experience become even more of a juggling act when you’re working with people who are there entirely because they choose to be. It’s a real gift to receive the effort and attention of people in this way, something I’ve always felt quite humbled by and would always want to be deeply respectful of.

Here’s a few ideas to be kicking around, if you’re in a leadership position involving volunteers, or just want to play with the idea of Snowplough Leadership a bit more. One caveat – even though I’ve done this kind of thing a fair bit myself, and coached others to do so, I notice that I’m a long way from feeling like I know all the answers. So take these more as things to explore, than some kind of definitive guide:

1. Do your volunteers have a clear line-of-sight through to what you need them to be doing? Have you metaphorically cleared enough of the snow (confusion, unfamiliarity, etc) out of the way, so that they can completely ‘see’ the destination?

2. What are you doing to get rid of the obstructions in their way? If your volunteering is anything like mine, you’ll be working with limited resources and very limited time. What do you need to take care of, so that your volunteers can just push on without getting stopped?

3. How slippery is the surface you’re asking them to work on? Are they equipped to move forwards? Can you see which individuals are accelerating too fast, and might come unstuck at the first corner? Which of your volunteers have their wheels spinning and might need a push to get going in the right direction?

4. And how about you? When you’re in a volunteer leadership position, it’s (relatively) easy to ask for help with simple tasks; much less easy to ask for help with things that you don’t know the answer to, that you’re not clear about. It can also be a bit of a thankless job and you may even face some hostility when you get things wrong; issues that people in a ‘normal’ working environment would have been less forthright about. It’s maybe a good idea to ask for help for you personally, whenever you can, as well as for the cause you’re working towards.

5. What else? What else is different about leading volunteers? Is there another important leadership function that this snowplough metaphor doesn’t really capture? In your experience, when does snowplough leadership fail, and why?