For a couple years, the student garden club at my daughter’s elementary has been an amazing success. Nearly 80 students from grades 1 to 5 spent time after school last year to design, create, and maintain a stellar garden with flowers and vegetables. The local newspaper and television station came out several times to record the kids in action. Parents volunteered and businesses donated supplies and money. There was even a club song! And all of this was due to the efforts of one woman.

Mrs. O was that woman, and she exemplifies leadership. When she puts her efforts toward any endeavor, her infectious enthusiasm and organizational genius almost guarantee success. Over the summer, Mrs. O was recruited to be vice president of the PTO, so she had to step down from her role leading the club. My neighbor heard that the school was looking for another parent to volunteer to take over. He shrugged and said, “Well, that’s the end of the garden club.” He was right.

I think we all know people like this — whether they’re leading a Cub Scout pack or board committee. There are some very effective leaders out there who are able to plan projects, recruit others, encourage a team, all the while keeping focus on the goals. This is all the more appreciated when the individual is a volunteer. But that kind of effectiveness can be dangerous.

It would be nice if organizations were like the mythical hydra — lop off one head, and two more grow back to replace it. Unfortunately, the loss of a key person often spells doom for the projects they were supporting by sheer force of personality.

A lot of critics would define this as a failure of leadership. You have to plan for your replacement. You must delegate so that activities can survive in your absence. But even in the best of transitions, some activities will be lost as new leaders with different priorities take up old projects.

I think the take-away is that board leaders — that’s who I am talking to, after all — need to maintain an awareness of how much each member is holding up and have an idea of how to proceed if that individual steps back. It would also be good to know how various activities fit into the priorities of the board as a whole.

Organizations are often loath to pull on the reins of anyone who expresses excitement for a pet project. Excitement can be rare, and the general inclination is that it should be encouraged, not dampened. Yet those kinds of projects — ones that aren’t embraced by the whole — are like a paddleboat: Once you stop paddling, you’re dead in the water. And that’s not fair to those who have dedicated their time and energy believing a project was worthwhile.


Image credit: Matt Forster and “Hercules Slaying the Hydra