Lessons in leadership from short-term volunteering

Lessons in leadership from short-term volunteering

I have volunteered with Suas Educational Development since 2010, supporting the preparation phase of their short-term volunteering program in India each summer. I work with the team co-ordinators to build their team and leadership skills. Each coordinator is responsible for approximately 12 volunteers during their 12 week placement.

Last year, I was asked to speak to the volunteers at their return weekend about the leadership skills they gain from this programme. To be honest, I felt a bit uncomfortable with this, how can I possibly know what they personally gained from their experience? I did, however, share my thoughts based on my experience of working as an executive coach in the workplace.

The skills that volunteers develop in this program are core to being a successful leader – resilience, relationship building, self-awareness, empathy and more.

Meeting people where they are at

A story one of the volunteers shared illustrates one of the key skills, or learnings, for a leader.  She and her team were concerned about one of the girls; she wasn’t very engaged in class. On their way home from school they saw her sitting on the side of the road selling corn. Their realisation was that their role wasn’t about measuring academic achievements per se, but making it a fun experience so she would want to come back the day after and day.  That was the difference they could make.

So often, we get caught up in how we and others should be. We have all these rules, standards, and expectations.  To learn to meet someone where they are at and serve their needs, rather than our own, is the most powerful thing you can do. To show respect and acknowledge that who they are now, and where they are at, is valid and is the platform from which they can grow and develop.

This applies to all of us – no one can grow or develop you. Only you can do that but you need to have a sense of self-worth and self-esteem. In a nutshell, don’t waste your time trying to fix others, but give them the support or validation they need to make their own changes.


Knowing how to take good care of yourself is another key skill for leadership; it’s putting the oxygen mask on yourself first. There is a huge misconception that taking care of yourself is selfish – that’s not true. If you are not in a good place, you are of no use to anyone and actually likely to pull others down with you. When people are unhappy in the work environment, they can be moody, which in turn affects the moods of others. 

I see this over and over; people running themselves into the ground, not taking care of their own needs. This results in stress, burnout, demotivation, anger and sadness.

Emotional skills

Volunteering in another country is an emotional roller coaster. Both in Delhi and Kolkata I saw the volunteers becoming more aware of their own emotions. They learnt how to manage them in a way that was respectful both to their own needs and to those around them. I saw them making great human connections with others and developing empathy.

This is emotional intelligence.

Over the last 20+ years, there has been a lot of research into the usefulness of emotional skills. Research has shown that EQ is a predictor of performance; people with higher emotional skills will tend to be more successful.

Team Skills

This programme puts a lot of emphasis on developing team skills.  The volunteers will have recognised that it takes time to develop as a team. They went through distinct phases and sometimes it was not always comfortable. 

One needs to understanding that it’s ok not to get on all the time. But having the skills and honesty to deal with that in a way that’s respectful to yourself and others is key for leadership. 


Einstein’s definition of madness is to keep repeating the same behaviours and expecting different results! Reflection is one of the stages of learning if you skip that stage you skip the full learning experience, which leaves you open to repeating over and over and over.  I don’t think I’ve worked with anyone who finds reflection easy, or something that comes naturally, however, consistently people acknowledge the importance of reflection and lament they didn’t start earlier in their careers.