What Nine Days on a Boat Taught Me About Volunteer Team Development and
Being a Leader

Volunteer team development can be tricky – we want our volunteers and employees to work in harmony.  But how do we pull it off? 

Sometimes, it’s by reflecting on our own experiences. 

I was both privileged and pushed beyond my comfort zone to participate in an open-boat expedition a few years back, during the coldest January Florida had seen in decades. On that trip, in addition to learning to navigate at sea and lower my threshold for the term ‘bathe’, I was empowered to learn healthy volunteer team development and define for myself what being a leader can mean. 

Heading out with a respected outdoor leadership organization, our crew arrived, purposefully, as strangers. Within hours of meeting, the need to begin functioning as a team became vital, as we tried to pack all the necessities for thirteen people to live, eat and stay safe on board a 30-foot open boat, such that we could all fit and function and nothing was at risk of falling overboard. 

Our group had begun the basic stages of group development by riding together in a shuttle the two hours from the airport. We then, more formally, enjoyed icebreakers and other bonding activities orchestrated by our instructors.  

With the tender buds of a team forming, we shared a meal, received the basic instructions necessary to launch and then set out to learn about sailing and working as a team. 

And, over the next nine days, we all enjoyed a windblown workshop in leadership and volunteer team development. 

(Any of this is sounding metaphorically familiar?) 

Defining a “Team” 

One SHRM article describes a team as “a group of people who work together to accomplish something beyond their individual self-interests;” They categorize a high-performance work team as “a group of goal-focused individuals with specialized expertise and complementary skills who collaborate, innovate and produce consistently superior results.  

The group relentlessly pursues performance excellence through shared goals, shared leadership, collaboration, open communication, clear role expectations and group operating rules, early conflict resolution, and a strong sense of accountability and trust among its members.” 

The same goes for the volunteers who serve your nonprofit – developing a shared sense of accountability and trust will be the lynchpins of your success. 

Defining “Leadership” 

The term “leadership” has a million definitions. Author, Jacob Morgan, shares in researching his upcoming book, he received 140 different answers when asking 140 CEOs for their definition of leadership. He says, “Every answer was different, but they were each correct… With so many definitions of leadership, each organization needs to have a clear definition of what leadership is and what it means to be a leader within their company. The definition can evolve over time.“  

In defining leadership, small business expert, Susan Ward says, “Leadership captures the essentials of being able and prepared to inspire others. Effective leadership is based upon ideas—both original and borrowed—that are effectively communicated to others in a way that engages them enough to act as the leader wants them to act. 

A leader inspires others to act while simultaneously directing the way that they act. They must be personable enough for others to follow their orders, and they must have the critical thinking skills to know the best way to use the resources at an organization’s disposal.” 

For more on leading volunteers, check out our Top 10 Volunteer Leadership Development Posts.

Lacking one decisive characterization of a leader, then, emulating the behaviors I saw modeled on that tiny boat bobbing on the open sea for more than a week can help bring positive results. It certainly did for us, as I made it safely back on dry land to tell about it, with team development insights to share.  

Supporting Volunteer Team Development: 6 Key Lessons 

Since each team is unique, and may even evolve over time, there is no single formula a leader can follow to produce a high functioning team 

What a leader can and must do is establish and role model behaviors for healthy group development. They must also establish a clear foundation to launch their team to success. 

To nurture a team, the group needs common goals and a framework for achieving them. The role of the leader is to keep the team aiming for their goals and to support their effort in the work to achieve them. 

On board our boat, there were so many opportunities to overcome challenges, that lessons in team development and leadership came in endless waves (no pun intended). These fundamentals can also be applied to supporting volunteer success. 

Below are six examples of what our team experienced and how they apply to volunteer team development and being a leader. 

Lesson #1: Have Clearly Defined Roles and Responsibilities 

On the very first day, and without knowing what some of the responsibilities even were, we were assigned roles that would rotate throughout the trip and typically switch about mid-day. Jobs varied from actual steering the boat to doing the dishes, depth-sounding to serving as hydration monitor.  

The first person to do any given job was trained by an instructor. From there, crew members trained each other, with oversight from the instructors.  There was great buy-in on the learning phases, since we knew we’d have to turn around and teach someone else how to do the job within 12 hours. 

Team member takeaways  

    • Everyone learned how hard or easy it was to do everyone else’s job. 
    • Hearing multiple teachers conveying the same information in different ways helped each of us understand the role better, as well as giving us different perspectives on communicating about it. 
    • We learned that every job was valuable to achieving the goals of the team. If the dishes didn’t get done and put away in a timely fashion, we couldn’t set sail on time, which meant we would arrive at our mooring in the dark.  
    • If something needed doing and we couldn’t get to it ourselves, we knew exactly whose responsibility it was. 

Volunteer team development leadership lesson 

    • Create well-defined roles and responsibilities. 
    • Use volunteer mentors 
    • Be sure each team member knows how their role fits into the organization’s mission. 
    • Offering team members both responsibility and accountability keeps them engaged. 

Lesson #2: Communicate Clearly  

Onboard, the Captain has ultimate say. Captain was one of the rotating roles taken on by crew members. In order that each person could jump into the role and lead the boat’s operation at a pace that wind and water dictate, we learned some basic terminology right from the very beginning. 

For example, you can’t just say “go right” on a boat, because which way right depends on which way a person is facing relative to the boat. 

“Port”, is always the left side of the boat as perceived by a person inside the vessel, facing the direction of travel. “Starboard” then, is the right side as perceived by a person inside the vessel facing the bow (front of boat). It’s important to know that so, when the crew is rowing the boat (facing aft), and the Captain wants the boat to turn quickly toward their right, they tell the crew, “Starboard, row all ahead; Port, row all back!” 

Imagine now, – especially if telling your right hand from your left on demand makes you forget which is which! – six or eight crew members, all calculating which way they’re facing, which side of the boat their sitting on and whether that means they row frontward or backward. There’s confusion enough in DOING the thing, even having specific boating language. There’s no time in an urgent situation to hammer out what the issued order was, it must be clear. Port is always port. 

Part of the ongoing crew training was to be sitting in different positions, facing different directions and trying to be the first to point in the correct direction when an instructor or other leader-of-the-day shouted port or starboard. We practiced this over and over, to varying levels of hilarity, until we were quite sure we’d all respond quickly should a real need to know arise. 

Team member takeaways 

    • Using the language of the group is a way to fit in and bond and could help the work get done more effectively. 
    • Practice, rehearsal, or training may seem frivolous or boring at the time but, can pay off in efficiencies or when the unexpected comes up. 

Volunteer team development leadership lessons 

    • Establishing key principles and expected behaviors is important. Standards matter, even when volunteers are key collaborators. 
    • Communication is key. Using and teaching the proper titles and terminology gives your team a universal language. 
    • Continuous learning helps keep information fresh, gets everyone operating on the same page, and keeps people in the habit of paying attention.  

Lesson #3: Manage Work and Deadlines Based on Priorities   

Our instructors, as excellent leaders, made sure that we had the basic information we needed – and some semblance of proficiency – in the tasks we were assigned. They then offered us the space to learn and share with others, only stepping in to gently correct any errors or omissions that would affect safety. 

We were allowed, whether cooking or navigating, to make the natural mistakes that someone who’s learning is bound to make. By making time and space for these miscalculations, we learned to rely on ourselves and our teammates to recognize and correct for errors. Sometimes, this meant sailing miles out of the way or coming adrift from a mooring as the tide came up. 

The natural consequence of sailing away from your original destination might be having to turn back and get on course against the wind. Or it could mean foregoing the original destination for some new place you’ve found. We were given the autonomy to decide which way to handle these circumstances as a group (unless the Captain exerted their authority) and it was empowering. 

Making the decision to turn around or forge ahead meant we had to consider how much fresh water we had, whether the meal we planned for dinner could be prepared while underway or if we had to be anchored. We had to be in the mindset of whether our navigators and active sailing hands had the energy and willingness to calculate and carry out a whole new set of responsibilities.  

Basically, we had to make the best decision we could, based on the tools and resources available to us. 

Team member takeaways 

    • We often had to sacrifice a particular destination to be anchored safely before dark fell or we got too hungry. This can be translated as foregoing the fun or fancy activity for the ones that really serve an organization’s mission. Focus on the true aim. 
    • Knowing the resources we had to work with helped us make wise choices.  
    • Experiencing the natural consequences of poor choices made us better at making wise choices. 

Volunteer team development leadership lessons 

    • Keep the team focused on the organization’s mission and priorities. 
    • More advanced volunteers, given clear parameters, can act somewhat autonomously. 
    • Teams also need resources and the flexibility to make some decisions on their own when the circumstance requires it. 
    • A high-functioning team will find a way to reach targets they help establish. 

Lesson #4: Provide Frequent Feedback 

Every morning, the Captain and navigation team met (with instructors to advise), to, literally, map out a route and schedule for the day. The crew was then informed, briefed on their duties and invited to give input on the plan. 

This set each day up with a clean slate and informed all stakeholders what to expect. Along the way, if any changes were needed (Changes were often needed due to wind, lack of wind, shallow water, or the sighting of a cool fish or a sandy beach….) the Captain would hail everyone’s attention and announce the change. 

At the end of each day, it became routine to debrief the day. Everyone was invited to express what had gone well or what could have gone better. These conversations were gold, as they gave some foreshadowing of what to consider as you took on each different role. Knowing what others found to be challenging, or what was surprisingly easy gave a frame of reference for something you hadn’t yet experienced. This served to improve the performance of those after taking on each role. 

Team member takeaways 

    • Practicing giving and receiving feedback, both positive and constructive, lessened the anxiety around feedback. It became a group norm. 
    • Everyone getting to have a say in feedback sessions demonstrated their equanimity, whether they were Cook or Captain that day.  
    • As a regular practice, honest feedback can show that you’re not the only one thinking or feeling a certain way.  Often, someone bravely bringing up an area of confusion or misunderstanding was rewarded with everyone’s sighs of relief once the issue was clarified. 

Volunteer team development leadership lessons  

    • Clearly communicate team goals and connect them to the mission of the organization. 
    • Make the giving and receiving of feedback a regular part of the team’s culture. 
    • Providing a safe space and healthy parameters for sharing input builds trust and respect.  
    • Be OK with making mistakes, owning up to them, and moving on with intention. 

Check out best tips for How to Embrace Failure for Success.

Lesson #5: Empower Team Members 

Taking part in the sailing expedition was a choice. Taking on the various roles was expected from everyone who made the choice to attend. How you showed up each day, in each role was a choice each individual was asked to consciously make. 

As part of the culture of the group, the instructors might have a one-on-one conversation with someone who wasn’t as energetic on a given day. This was a great way of letting an individual know that they were noticed and cared for, without calling them out in front of the group. 

Instructors, and, eventually, crew mates would call out upcoming challenges or opportunities that they thought others might enjoy. If the wind was picking up, we all knew who would want to be hauling in the sail (a more visible, high action role) and who would “man the rudder” (a low-risk activity that shelters one from wind and water).  

To a certain extent, once we’d been at sea for a while, team members were encouraged to take on roles they preferred or excelled at from those who were less interested or doubting their skills. However, anyone wanting to improve on a skill was also encouraged to hold or take over that position and make clear how much support they wanted. 

Deepak Chopra says, “Every employee wants to know that they are being noticed and valued — because it empowers them to succeed. One of the most effective ways to do this is to acknowledge their skills. 

According to a 2019 Gallup poll, employees who are aware of their strengths are more motivated, perform better, and less likely to leave. When managers don’t notice or point out their team members’ strengths, disengagement can increase by up to 45%, the report found. 

So, pay close attention to the work of each team member and help them identify their strongest skills. Then, discuss how their can use those skills to add value to the company and excel in their career.” 

Team member takeaways 

    • The crew was a safe space to pursue new skills as well as an environment where it was perfectly acceptable to say, “I’m scared.”, I’m not sure.” or, “Will you help me?” 
    • You can make the choice to participate. You can make the choice to improve. Not choosing is also a choice. 

Volunteer team development leadership lessons 

    • Give recognition for progress, not just outcomes. This motivates people to keep trying. 
    • Helping to identify the strengths of your team members will help ensure your organization can continue to leverage those abilities. 
    • The right support, even when a volunteer seems hesitant, can open new doors for you and them. 

Check out our Leadership Traits Self-Assessment to pinpoint strengths.

Lesson #6: Celebrate Success and Recognize Contributions 

There is little to no refrigeration on the open boat in which we voyaged. That means that the food onboard is not of gourmet quality. It’s a lot of rice and pasta, bagels and other non-perishables. Meals can be bland and repetitive. 

To counteract and/or distract from that, there are rituals that each expedition builds around mealtimes. Ours had to do with gratitude and recognition. 

Everyone gathered for meals in the cockpit of the boat; we were thigh-to-thigh with barely enough room to bend our elbows in bring the fork from dish to lips. There, we would take as much time as it took to express gratitude for whatever had brought us pleasure that day. 

Often, this brought on fits of laughter, as someone was grateful they’d been sitting on the high side when all the water came over the low side, or that they’d gotten to eat the last half of the last tangerine. Sometimes, it was quiet, as someone told how much they appreciated the folks back home who were taking care of the kids so they could be out on the ocean learning to sail. 

Out there, with little but the work of the day and each other, we made a point to celebrate every little win. We expressed gratitude for the light of the stars as we set up our shelter at night. We expressed gratitude to and for each other for rowing when we had no wind to sail. 

Our meals concluded with happy sighs every time, despite the plain ingredients. 

Team member takeaways 

    • The team’s own stories help bond the team members. 
    • Success may not always look like achieving a goal. Reward the effort each person puts forth. 

Volunteer team development leadership lessons 

    • Make gratitude a daily practice at your organization. 
    • Acknowledge the wins as they happen, not only at a recognition ceremony. 
    • Enable the team to recognize each other’s contributions. 
    • Simple gestures of gratitude are available and effective. 

By considering these six key areas of leadership, no matter what your style, you will experience higher team morale, lower turnover, and deeper results with your volunteer efforts.  

Consider how well you are doing in each area. Where are your innate strengths? Where are there opportunities for improvement? 

Leading For Your Volunteer Team Development 

This tale of high seas adventure shared six characteristics of a highly functioning team that a leader should hold as standards and leadership lessons for each.  

The group culture is then built with these inherent expectations: 

  • Clearly Defined Roles and Responsibilities 
  • Communicate Clearly 
  • Manage Work and Deadlines Based on Priorities 
  • Provide Frequent Feedback 
  • Empower Team Members 
  • Celebrate Success and Recognize Contributions 

While these serve as the foundation, there is also plenty of wiggle room to craft a leadership culture that makes sense at your organization. 

In the end, there is no silver bullet, no single way to be a successful leader. Every team and mission will have unique variables that call upon different methodologies and skills. However, there are some essential basics that need to be in place for healthy volunteer team development. 

Try these on for size and watch your team excel. 

What would you add to our list? Share in the comments what other characteristics you strive to uphold for your team.