An Investigation Into the Leadership Practices of Volunteer Leaders

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited


Purpose – While numerous studies of leadership have been conducted in the corporate and public sectors, there are lots of people leading in civic, social, and community service organizations and little is known about either how they lead or how their leadership practices are similar to or different from those leading in other sectors. The purpose of this paper is to fill that gap by examining leadership practices unique to leadership that occurs within organizations where both leaders and followers are volunteers. Design/methodology/approach – The sample involved surveying over 60 percent of the volunteer (n=569) leaders across a national youth sports organization based in the USA. Findings – Volunteer leaders engaged more frequently in leadership behaviors than did paid leaders. Some differences in leadership behaviors were found on the basis of respondent gender, age, educational level, and employment status. Leadership behaviors were systematically related to quality of respondents’ volunteer leadership experience. While objective measures of organizational effectiveness were unrelated to the leadership behaviors of the voluntary leaders, subjective assessments did impact how leaders behaved. Research limitations/implications – The research relied upon the self-reported leadership behaviors of respondents, and the organization’s measure of effectiveness was unrelated to respondent leadership behaviors. Future studies would benefit from leadership assessments provided by observers and constituents, samples involving different kinds of volunteer organizations (both settings and services) and more complex and nuanced empirical relationships. Practical implications – It is problematic that a volunteer organization cannot clearly define what it means to be an effective leader. Knowing the direct relationship between leadership behaviors and how favorably people feel about their voluntary leadership experience implies making certain that volunteer leaders actually have the opportunity to lead. Social implications – Because so many people volunteer and voluntary (and not-for-profit) organizations are vital to economic well-being it is important to know more about what effective leadership looks like within this domain. Originality/value – Few studies of volunteer leaders have been done, and none in this particular type of youth sports organization. Extends an understanding of leadership and what people do when they are leading others, especially in terms of settings involving volunteer participants rather than paid participants.