Adaptability of water is a good example for leaders

Lead like water

We are leaders of volunteers. But what does that really mean?

I’ve been doing a lot of research into leadership lately. One thing I’ve discovered is there are as many thoughts and opinions about what leadership is and what attributes leaders should have, as there are people who write about it.

When it comes to leading volunteers, though, three things have come up repeatedly. Leaders of volunteers are adaptable, they have integrity and they make a difference. In other words, they lead like water.


As a leader of volunteers, being adaptable is essential. You need to be able to adjust to changing situations, deal with obstacles and challenges and treat different people and circumstances in the way best suited to them at any given time. When a crisis hits, you need to be strong and decisive. If a volunteer is suffering, you need to be gentle and sympathetic.

What has this got to do with water, you ask? Well, think about it, what is more adaptable than water? It flows around and over obstacles and it can find its way right into the heart of things. It changes to perfectly suit the environment that it finds itself in. When things get hot, it turns to steam, when cold, it turns to ice.


Despite the need for adaptability, a leader of volunteers must also have unshakable integrity. Volunteers need to know your focus is always on advancing the cause, that you base your actions on solid values and they can trust you to do what’s right for them and for the organization.

Water is the same. Despite all its adaptability and capacity to change, at its heart it is always the same. Whether water, steam or ice, it is always H2O. Its core and its essence never change, it stays itself. It has integrity.

Making a difference

The theme last year for International Volunteer Manager’s Day was Helping Others Help. The volunteers we work with help our various causes, but they couldn’t have as great an impact as they do without your work behind the scenes. You make a difference. Every time you recruit a new volunteer, you expand the reach of your organization. Each time you come up with a creative solution to a challenging problem, you smooth the path for volunteers and other leaders. The difference you make is phenomenal.

And water makes a difference. It is impossible to imagine our world without water. Leaving aside the fact that there would be no life without it, think of the changes that water makes every day; some of them swift and massive, some of them slow and subtle. A mudslide that changes the entire shape of a mountainside, or a patient drip steadily wearing away a boulder.

One more thing, as a leader you need to be able to fill volunteers up.

When they’re tired, you provide energy and motivation. If they’re losing enthusiasm, you get them fired up again. You train, encourage and mentor them to be the best they can be at whatever role or task they have taken on. You increase their satisfaction by showing them the impact they have—just as dry sponge will swell and soften with just a touch of water.

Can you lead like water? If you can, no obstacles can stop you, you’ll just flow around them. You can change your actions and style to meet the need of the moment, assertive and directive during times of crisis, collaborative and nurturing during times of growth.

You will always stay true to your beliefs and values. You may change your style, but your core will remain strong. And you will change those that you touch; whether you sweep someone headlong into a new belief in themselves, or whether you patiently wear away at a granite prejudice.

Foster in yourself adaptability, integrity, and the willingness to fill your volunteers up. If you lead like water, the world will be a better place because of you.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

More Volunteer Matters articles

About the Author

Karen Knight has provided volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations for more than 25 years.

Her professional life has spanned many industries, working in both the private and public sectors in various leadership positions.

Through her passion for making a difference in the world, she has gained decades of experience in not-for-profits as a leader and a board member.

Karen served in Toastmasters International for more than 25 years, in various roles up to district director, where she was responsible for one of the largest Toastmasters districts in the world.

She oversaw a budget of $250,000 and 300 individual clubs with more than 5,000 members. She had 20 leaders reporting directly to her and another 80 reporting to them—all volunteers.

Karen currently serves as vice-president of the board of directors for the Kamloops Therapeutic Riding Association.

After many years working and volunteering with not-for-profits, she found many leaders in the sector have difficulty with aspects of volunteer programs, whether in recruiting the right people, assigning those people to roles that both support the organization’s mission and in keeping volunteers enthusiastic.

Using hands-on experience, combined with extensive study and research, she helps solve challenges such as volunteer recruitment, engagement and training for not-for-profit organizations.

Karen Knight can be contacted at [email protected], or through her website at https://karenknight.ca/.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

Previous Stories