Rock Climbing and Leading Volunteers

leading volunteers

I went rock climbing yesterday in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. I’ve never done any real rock climbing before; just a time or two on artificial walls. This was much more challenging. I’m not terribly tall, and the spaces between the hand and foot holds were sometimes a real stretch for me. It was hard work, and there were times when it seemed like it would never end. Sometimes I wondered why I had even started. Then we’d have a break and I’d get a chance to look around, enjoy the spectacular views and see exactly how far I’d come. It made it all worth while.

Leading volunteers is the same. It can be a lot of hard work, seems like it’s never ending and you may very well wonder why you’re doing it. Just like rock climbing, though, there are ways of making it easier and more satisfying. And, believe me, it is worth it!

Plan and prepare.

Before I started, I made sure I was dressed appropriately and had all the equipment I would need. While I was climbing, I kept looking ahead so I could pick out the route that made things easier for me. When leading volunteers, keep yourself educated in the field and ensure you have the right resources.  Keep looking to the future so you can plan out strategies that make the work simpler and less time-consuming.

And preparation involves more than just logistical planning. For climbers and leaders, mental preparation is key. Good climbers (me, not so much!) visualize the climb, anticipate challenges, and develop strategies to overcome them. As a leader, visualizing the impact you’ll make and being mentally prepared for when things go wrong can help you guide your team more effectively. In both cases, knowing exactly where you want to end up and why will help you get there.

Have trust in your team.

During the climb, there was a time when I couldn’t see the next handhold. I had to trust Alisia, my guide, when she told me to reach around a rock and that the handhold was there and strong enough to support me. It was scary, and if I hadn’t trusted her I wouldn’t have been able to continue. In the same way, leading volunteers requires having trust within your team. Frances Frei’s TED talk “How to Build and Rebuild Trust” has fantastic tips on how to do that well.

Face your fears.

Rock climbing and leading can both have frightening moments. The fears are different; fears in climbing tend to be physical ones – falling, breaking a bone, and so on. Leadership fears, on the other hand, tend to focus on things like self-doubt or anxiety about how a project will turn out. In both cases, though, the key is to acknowledge them, stay calm and keep going. Celebrating small wins and staying cheerful helps you push through. It also inspires confidence in the volunteers and your management team.

Don’t do it alone.

Several times during the climb, when I was struggling with a particularly difficult part, I would hear Alicia’s voice call out, “We’re almost there. You’ve got this!” It gave me the courage to power through the hard part and keep going. Generally, the leader of volunteers is the only one in that role in the organisation. It can feel very isolating and can make you feel you are the only one who’s facing the challenges in front of you. It’s important to have a network of colleagues for support. People you can bounce ideas off of, who’ve been where you are and will tell you that you’re on the right path and success is just around the corner. Someone to tell you that you’ve got this. Because you do.

Celebrate success and reflect on the journey.

Reaching the summit of the climb was thrilling. I was sweating, my legs were trembling from the effort and my hands were scraped up but it was so worth it! When I looked back at the path I had taken, I could see the places where I had struggled, and they didn’t look so bad. I knew that if I did it again I would be able to do the whole climb faster and easier.

When leading volunteers, there isn’t a hard and fast end point. You will need to set your own “summits” where you can take some time to look back and see how far you’ve come. When you can congratulate yourself on the difference you’ve made and the lessons you’ve learned that will make the next time you face a challenge easier.

And look forward to the next cliff you’re going to climb.

Good luck, and have fun!

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