Practical leadership – when to ‘walk away’?

I have just been reflectWalk Awaying on the various organisations in which I have a voluntary interest, typically as a trustee or school governor. Every single one of them either has had, or currently has, significant leadership issues – perhaps that says something about the type of organisation in which I get involved but I really wanted both myself and you to reflect on our behaviour when faced with serious challenges.

Throughout most of my working life I was paid, and sometimes handsomely, to face and deal with the challenges of organisational stress and change. I mention this because I have come to recognise that facing similar challenges as a volunteer is fundamentally different. In the first instance a security driver always kicked in, after all my employer paid my mortgage and set up a pension which now allows me to volunteer my time. The situation with volunteering is fundamentally different, I can walk away at any time and can even arrange such a departure that most other people involved would recognise that I was neither implicitly not explicitly knocking the organisation for which I had volunteered. Indeed I did that three or four years ago when I temporarily gave up all of my involvement in school governance because it was taking over and I realised that I needed to pay more attention to my business and personal life. Well, that is what I said at the time.

Reflecting on that, and taking account of my current circumstances, I wonder whether I had just had enough. I guess that I volunteer in the belief that those receiving my services will value them and be prepared to listen to what I have to say. Better still, act on it. When this does not happen, the change manager in me says something along the lines of “Well, the system is stuck and I am part of the system. What can I do differently that might provoke a different response?”

As a professional, one tries and tries and tries alternative tactics and strategies in an effort to unlock the system. Equally, as a professional I have come to realise that there is a time to walk away. I have probably mentioned before that, in something like 30 years of change leadership, one of the key lessons I have learned is “Do what you can, where you can, when you can”. The implications of that statement are that on occasions one ought to walk away from a challenge, partly because walking away is itself an intervention that might shift the system and partly because a change agent’s time is usually best spent on situations where they can make a difference rather than tiring themselves out in trying to move the immovable object.

So my proposition is that the statement “I have had enough of this” might well be my subconscious telling me to walk away. What do you think? Especially for those of you who volunteer your time, what keeps you there when the going gets tough?

5 Replies to “Practical leadership – when to ‘walk away’?”

  1. A thought-provoking topic. In the last 2 years, I have decided to walk away from organisations, one of which did provide a security driver. On one occasion, the way in which the organisation proposed to advance its objectives was absolutely counter to my personal values that I could no longer be associated with it for reputational and other reasons. I pulled the plug on the other, becase the Directors were not aligned in terms of business objectives, strategy etc, but more importantly, in terms of their personal commitment to the company. It was a unanimous decision, but I fired the gun first. I think you have to look at oneself and think whether you can make a difference with the amount of resources ( in its widest sense) that you are prepared to offer. If you cannot do so, then the chances are you will become part of the problem, and not the solution -a drag on energy, at a time when real positive energy is required.

  2. Many of us are drawn to screwed up organizations because we are excited by the challenges of helping them become less screwed up; we’re attractive to them because at some level they recognize their own dysfunction and seek something different, if only affirmation that they are all screwed up. Such is life.

    I owe my employers my best efforts and my best professional advice. Same for volunteer boards and such efforts. They do not have to do what I advise; they do have to listen and hear me out and ideally explain their decisions to me as a modicum of professional courtesy. If not, then we have a problem. If I am working harder to help people succeed at their work than they are, we have a problem. Now, no job is worth a stroke, frustration or incoherent rage; when I realize that we have a serious problem, I understand that I am the one with the problem. Time to leave.

  3. Hello!

    Having worked in different organisations, public & private sectors, I’ve concluded you can’t make people take advice. I’ve almost finished the ‘Super Coaching’ diploma and am astonished by the results Coaching can have on an individual. It’s about having a structured discussion, asking questions in a structured way to help the person articulate the specific goal they are trying to achieve and how will they know when they have been successful. The Coach then asks the person to reflect on the reality, id the stakeholders and their views (as with 360), explore options &barriers and then support them to identify a specific action plan to take them from where they are now, to achieving the goal.

    I’ve facilitated quite a few sessions with groups and individuals and it’s so rewarding to see a situation that appears to be ‘stuck’, become motivating and positive. I’ve come to realise that so often in life and work we think we are working collectively but until we articulate where we need to be and how we are going to get there, we may have the same general goal in mind, but are trying to go about it in isolation. Coaching is an astonishing tool and has massive potential for unlocking talent, creativity and motivation in individuals and organisations.

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