How many times have we heard that statement at an awards ceremony: "I couldn't have done it without you"? A gracious response coming from the recipient of recognition, of course, but do we take the time to consider—whether it's spoken aloud or merely implied—just how accurate that thought is?
Whether a group effort brings accolades for the leader or for the entire team, this can be said of most of what we accomplish collectively. How can it be otherwise? We may think of the perfect leader as one having super-human attributes—doing everything excellently, being everywhere seemingly all at once, never tiring of offering up that expert contribution—but even if one person can pull off that routine for a season, it can't last for ever. Even the superhuman need to stop and take a breath—or a vacation—sometime. Being "on" twenty-four/seven is a surefire prescription for premature expiration.
It comes closer to the truth to realize that many accomplishments evolve thanks to the contribution of many. When we build our organizations, remembering that—rather than lusting over the mythical leader with all the solutions—helps to build a longer lasting, more stable entity.
This doesn't just apply to trans-national corporations. It works for our own local associations, as well. More to the point, as we get closer to the grass roots, that team effort is a more organically-nurtured imperative. The needs we uncover in our own "backyard" are so visible to passers-by that they just can't be ignored.
Think barn raisings of generations gone by. Community gardens. Community chests. Team boosters. Sure, each locally-organized drive calls for an adept leader. But the leader can't go it alone. There's a reason why previous generations often repeated that saying, "Many hands make light work."
That was generations ago. Perhaps the Bowling Alone conundrum has chipped away at that work ethic. Are things different now?
When we think of local organizations—take our local genealogical societies, for instance, since we are so familiar with them—we think of a group run by a board. The board makes everything happen, it seems. Yes, some people volunteer for specific, limited-time, projects. But there are so many instances where that small body of leaders puts out a plea for help—assistants to shadow board members, contributors to specific ongoing projects, members to serve on steering committees—and the plea goes unanswered. Everyone loves what the society is accomplishing. But only a few seem to love it enough to put some effort into that love.
And so, those small boards are left to labor alone, inevitably without any back-up plans for unexpected downturns. After all, it's hard to do contingency planning when there's only one person willing to handle each vital task in a project.
I'm thinking of an example from this past week, a time of coinciding unfortunate events that made me wish we were more like the Can Do generations of the past. A local situation, it has to do with our small genealogical society. Last night was supposed to be our monthly meeting—in this case, our annual potluck event.
While potlucks are theoretically laissez faire events where everything somehow comes together, our board has learned that such "magic" does not generally coalesce at the very moment of that annual get-together. While everyone loves the relaxed atmosphere and chance to socialize with fellow members, it takes a fair amount of work to make that fun become the fun it is.
One member of our board hosts the event at his home. In order to provide seating for the dinner, he hauls in tables and chairs, plus canopies for shade, before the event even starts. Another board member—our president—attends to the organization of the evening's activities and program. And the word has to get out via newsletter announcements and invitations requiring RSVP. All of this is seamlessly coordinated by the society's board members.
Seamlessly, that is, until this week, when trouble seemed to conspire against us. A heart attack and subsequent surgery tied up one board member. A death in the family took another board member out of town. And a back injury put yet a third board member flat on her back. All in the same week.
It is times like this when those oft-repeated but seldom responded-to pleas for volunteers to share the burden come back to haunt us. Succession planning is a laudable goal, and certainly much preferred to the line-in-the-sand scene experienced by some societies—the "I'm quitting; if you want the group to continue, someone's going to have to step up to be President" ultimatum. But isn't there a happier medium somewhere closer to the point of finding people to learn the tasks enough to pinch hit when the need arises? What happens when the Vice President needs a Vice President?
I can think of dozens of ways to theoretically approach such difficulties, but there is one thing missing in all that theorizing: you. "You," the member who loves the events, always shows up, can sometimes be caught vocalizing that "what's in it for me" outlook—those many individuals who once surely thrilled to the oft-repeated line from the inaugural address of President John F. Kennedy:
Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.
I humbly beseech my fellow genealogical society members—and those members of all local societies in our nation and around the world—to re-phrase that famous challenge by inserting the word "society," and see if we can't all join together and make a difference. In our own societies. In our own neighborhoods. Where we can reach out and touch the actual stuff that needs change.
Because, after all, we couldn't do it without you.