Leading From The Rear

Over a year has passed since I first joined a student organization at the Illinois Institute of Technology and since then I have been on three leadership teams at different organizations. As I transition away from them and bring focus back to what I am truly passionate about, I wanted to share what I’ve learned from my experiences to help the next set of leaders make their organizations even more successful.

Among many of the organizations I have been a part of, both on and off campus, the biggest contributing factor to their shortcomings has been a lack of motivation. This lack of motivation among the leadership team could cause relationships to fail, events to have low turnouts, and many other effects. I can testify to experiencing the pain firsthand.

However, this does not have to happen.

There are leadership strategies you can use today to motivate others in your organization, increase participation and empower members to put in effort which will make a change for the better. Contrary to the traditional leadership approaches being top-down, these strategies are bottom-up. By starting from the bottom, anyone can influence their organization this way, not just the president.

If you don’t want to read all of the strategies but would like a summary, skip to the “Final Thoughts” section of the post.

Get Started Early #

Culture is hard to change, so when starting a new organization it is critical to incorporate some of the following leadership methods into how the founding team works. Give the organization a mission with a defined set of values. Set an example of what is good behavior and what is not, guiding the team towards good behavior. Whatever policies or recommendations are created, do them as early as possible for them to make the biggest impression.

I would recommend you go about doing this by developing an organizational mission and vision statements, writing a set of team values, and then ensuring every meeting, decision, etc. supports that initial framework. Trying to force any of the following will not work. Rather it should be an organic process, involving all stakeholders.

Invert the Pyramid #

In the majority of organizations there is a bureaucratic structure with a President, Vice President, Secretary, Treasurer, and some of the other standard titles. While policies for establishing the organization may require you to name these individuals, they do not need to act the part. Make the team feel they are able to voice their opinion and contribute towards the organizational mission, rather than pleasing the person at the top.

Allowing any member to jump on any task is one way to do this - while having designated people for defined roles may feel comforting, I’ve found that giving people the freedom to work on what they want to work on will yield the best results. For most of their young lives, students have been told what to do - now is the chance to promote free thinking and action.

Listen and Introspect #

Humans like to hear themselves communicate. Often, this comes at the expense of listening to other voices, who have valuable information to share. One of the most important leadership traits is listening to the people around you, and listening well. It is tempting to believe your own marketing, but when you take some time to hear from executive board members, regular club members, and even students not involved, incredible insights are gained. These insights you can apply to improving the organization, thus making it more successful.

In my experience, listening to people has uncovered the most interesting problems, as well as made those speaking feel empowered to speak. Show people you are listening by asking questions relating to what they say, talk about possible improvements, etc. Taking time at least every month to reflect on current progress in an honest manner has yielded far more improvements than if listening and introspection did not happen.

Reach Out #

While introspection is important, equally so is when team members reach out to other team members. A simple “How can I help?” reminds the person that you care about their performance and want to lend assistance to keep it high. Besides asking for ways to help, check-in with other members and see how they are doing, what they have trouble with, and what ways you can keep them motivated and successful.

I’ve found that talking to someone I wouldn’t have otherwise talked to every day gives me a much clearer picture of the organization’s status. Do not limit yourself to the same circle as always, but rather distribute your efforts among different groups of people. Empower those people to make change on their own and motivate them to do so with lots of encouragement.

Make an Investment #

Behavioral economics has lots to say about motivation, but one observation that repeatedly appears is that spending money towards a goal forces the person to want to accomplish it more. To this end, invest in your team members - find ways to unleash their energy and intelligence. Allocate part of the budget for a social activity which builds friendship and gratitude for each other. Seek out ways to develop intrinsic motivation over extrinsic motivation.

One way you can encourage intrinsic motivation, which leads to self direction, is by providing members with freedom, developing their capabilities, encouraging them to reach their full potential, and facilitating purpose and innovation in their environment. Invest in your fellow team members and the organization as a whole will succeed.

Final Thoughts #

If you take nothing else away from this post, know that keeping members motivated is key to any organization’s success, and that following servant leadership practices is a great way to develop that motivation. Listen to fellow members, empathize and heal them. Be aware of how each member is doing and how the organization is doing, then conceptualize those experiences and use foresight to develop strategies for the future. Be committed to the personal and professional growth of every member in your organization. Build a community among members, both on the executive board and off it. Most importantly, use persuasion to motivate others rather than coercion. When the executive board (or any leadership team) of an organization is intrinsically motivated to succeed, they have a much better chance at doing so. Start all these practices as early as possible to maximize success.

Much of this post comes from my experience, but if you want further proof or explanation I encourage you to check out the following resources:

I learned about servant leadership a year ago at IIT’s Office of Campus Life’s Leadership Summit, and what I learned there has been in the back of my mind since then, influencing me in subtle ways when making decisions or just talking to a fellow board member.

I’d love to chat more about the subject and may be able to help your organization improve through these practices, so mention me on Twitter or reach out over email if you’d like to chat more. Thanks for reading.


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