A call to psychologists: Step up and be leaders

By Nancy Haller, Ph.D.
November 1, 2009 - Last updated: May 31, 2011

The e-mail invitation read: “If you are interested in being considered for one of these committees, please visit the website listed below to learn more about the committee and its work.”

When Daylight Saving Time ended on Nov. 1, most people enjoyed having an extra hour to sleep, but for a large portion of the population the changing of the clock was not a welcome event.

I couldn’t help but wonder … how many volunteers will be recruited from this “shotgun” invitation? Furthermore, why don’t psychologists participate more in leadership positions? Our profession and our society are experiencing radical changes. By the very nature of our education and experience, psychologists ought to be natural leaders.

After all, effective leadership requires clear thinking, good communication, interpersonal skillfulness, sound judgment and the ability to resolve conflict. Aren’t these the same competencies required of a psychologist? Our skills should be transferable.

Yet consistently our professional associations struggle to find people willing to assume leadership roles. Perhaps it is because psychologists don’t think of themselves as “leaders” per se. We tend to be self-sufficient and work independently. Very few psychologists know how to work within a volunteer organization or with mental health programs from a leadership point of view.

For most psychologists, serving on a community or county board is totally foreign. Yet the whole concept of a practitioner can and potentially should be that of a leader within your profession.

After thinking about this and talking with others I concluded that there are two general “categories” of psychologists. To increase our percentage of volunteerism we need to address the personalities of each.

At its core the first group is service-oriented. They chose the profession because they want to make a difference. You’ll find these psychologists already volunteering in schools, churches or synagogues. They show up on Saturday mornings to collect trash on the beach. Year after year they serve food to the homeless on holidays. They participate in activities in addition to their psychology practice. Their lives are expanded beyond work-for-monetary-gain.

It seems to me that there is a second group of psychologists comprised of people who are not collaborators. Often they enter the field to “heal” their own problems. As Alice Miller wrote in The Drama of the Gifted Child, many are in search of themselves. They chose a profession that lends itself to seclusion and control. Interactions are scheduled in private 50-minute hours.

Practicing psychology shields one from looking inward. After all, the focus of therapy is to help solve other people’s problems. There is no real conflict within the hallowed walls of a therapist’s office. Interpersonal tension can be deflected as “transference.” This group is more difficult to pull into the volunteer arena. How to recruit and train them is a challenge akin to herding cats.

I am not saying that the first group of psychologists doesn’t have leadership challenges. If these folks are to become leaders within the profession they still may need to learn how. Psychologists as a rule have little to no training in leadership principles. Furthermore this service-oriented group is often not task-focused. Consider the reality that in and of itself therapy is a process. There is no finish line or due date.

When I was a clinician and clients asked, ‘”How long will it take?” I was hard pressed to give an accurate answer. Apologetically I said, “It will take as long as it takes.” Psychologists are often unfamiliar with the pressures and realities of deadlines. When I served as a liaison between our local psychological association and the media, the urgency of “show time” annoyed many of my peers who wanted to schedule the TV interview “next week.”

All that said, there are some basic principles to recruiting both groups. We live in an age of “time poverty.” This is unlikely to change as an over-packed schedule is the new norm in our society. Traditional meeting formats – evenings and weekends – no longer fit busy families. If we want to increase psychologists’ involvement, we must get creative with the use of their time.

Schedule breakfast or lunch meetings or identify times when volunteers are already at another event. Keep meetings concise, relevant and on time. With our technological advancements, conduct meetings virtually whenever possible.

If we want psychologists to be involved we need to design smaller, easier, more flexible options. Consider shared responsibility and shared leadership. Create family and friends options. Most importantly remember the slogan of radio station, WII-FM: “What’s in it for me?” Repeatedly identify and promote the personal benefits of volunteering. Kindle their passion for causes they support.

Generally people will step up when you pique their interests. Invest the time to understand the needs and styles of potential volunteers. Show them how they will receive personal satisfaction and reward by participating.

A warning: Be careful about the subtle messages sent to volunteers regarding long-term commitment and dedication. Don’t scare people away before you’ve hooked them.

In my experience, directly asking someone with whom you already have a relationship is THE most effective way to recruit volunteers. Nothing overcomes objections better than asking a friend face-to-face to assist you with a project they know is important.

Just as with the service-oriented group, extend a personal invitation to those in the second category of psychologists. When the foundational work of relationship building is present (or developed), participation will be greater. Be specific. A vague request to “join a committee” is unlikely to entice anyone, especially those who are hesitant about getting involved.

Appeal to the person’s reputation and areas of specialty. Respect, trust and relational commitment are the key qualities that promote contribution and maximize influence. Recognize that people can have insecurities about being good enough or having enough experience. Be encouraging.

During the course of volunteering if problems arise, express concerns. Give one-to-one feedback in a non-threatening way. Be collaborative in seeking viable solutions. Yet know when it’s time to let go. Just as the “Serenity Prayer” advises, accept the things you cannot change.

There will always be those who volunteer for the wrong reason. Some want notoriety and lack sustainability. Others just can’t get along or don’t have the initiative needed. When the pushing and prodding become too draining, redirect your efforts.

Retaining volunteers takes skill also. People want to give their best effort to those who notice. Time and time again, I have witnessed the power of a simple “thank you” and the erosion of enthusiasm in its absence. When people feel appreciated their participation will have longevity.

Avoid burning out the doers. When you have people who are passionate and enthusiastic tap into their energy to recruit others to whom they can delegate. Watch the teamwork of people who know and like each other. The joy of interacting with a core group of colleagues maximizes connectivity, to the team and its mission.

I challenge all psychologists to be pioneering leaders. Becoming a leader can start anywhere and anytime. In fact informal leadership opportunities provide valuable professional and personal experience. Above all, psychologists must remember we are educators in the broadest sense. As such it is incumbent upon all of us to become authentic leaders who make our communities and our world a better place.


Nancy Haller, Ph.D., is on the adjunct faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership and is president of Applied Psychometrics, an organizational consulting firm in La Jolla, Calif. She may be reached by e-mail at NHaller@NHaller.com.

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