Leadership: How to Create Volunteers

15 September 2021
If you want to create a successful high performance team environment then one of the best tools you can look to deploy is the David Peake “Prisoner to Volunteer” model. The model helps you to recognise how individuals or groups of teams are operating within a business environment, and thereby influencing its culture.

The best way to determine the dynamics of these groupings is to have quality conversations with the key influencers to better understand their subconscious beliefs, and how these are playing out in performance. At base, the issue is: are people actively engaged (volunteers) or simply complying (prisoners)?


This model absolutely resonates with me: it is blunt, but it cuts through a lot of the obfuscating politically correct corporate jargon we have previously been exposed to. It allowed me to grasp the fact that unless we are able to create true volunteers, then anything else will create barriers to any objective.

If the environment or culture of a team is a direct result of the leadership style deployed by the senior leaders, then leaders need to consciously choose a volunteer style of leadership, and decide on what actions to take to create the right environment to encourage and enable volunteers. The leadership style we adopt can create full-on volunteers who exercise high levels of discretionary effort, or whingers who look to bag the system at every opportunity. We can create survivors who mentally quit but stay on pretending to be engaged, or prisoners who feel trapped and will undertake acts of sabotage to bring down the empire.

As David Peake says: ‘If you can get people into volunteer mode, irrespective of their country of origin, they become literally unstoppable, willing to walk over broken glass for you as a leader.

First, this model acknowledges the effects of individuals’ attitudes and actions within an organisation. It then shows how a leader can create an environment that harnesses people’s innate responsiveness in ways that work toward a unified vision, direction and purpose. Equally, it emphasises the importance of identifying and setting free those whose beliefs and actions undermine that unified purpose. I have used this model many times, with great success, to identify and then guide a team’s or individual’s potentially obstructive subconscious beliefs towards a more productive belief. I have also found that it is not something you attempt just once; it is something you have to re-visit on a regular basis, as the individuals in a team or the overall environment continually change. It is underpinned by an awareness of the dynamics and flux and power of attitudes within and upon a business.

In essence it is a monitoring process. To use another analogy, whenever you initiate a treatment, there is then the need to observe and monitor reaction, and perhaps adjust the treatment to elicit the required response and outcome. The Prisoner to Volunteer model can be seen as underpinning the monitoring and refining process of the success of implemented decisions or strategies.

I believe we all have conscious thoughts that correlate to several of these groupings at some point in our lives, or even at various moments of the day. That is perfectly natural, but it is the length of time we let that conscious thought keep occurring that matters, because if it goes on to establish a subconscious belief it becomes much harder to change. It is okay to fall into whinger and survivor mode for a short period of time, as long as you can catch yourself or have others provide feedback in time to move you back to volunteer mode.

However, in my view it is not okay to fall into the prisoner mode even for a short period of time. If you find yourself doing so, you need to immediately catch yourself, or as a leader identify those individuals ASAP, and look to ‘set your prisoners free’. If you don’t, those beliefs will trap and hold you back. They will actively work to sabotage any positive goal or objective you have. Over the years I have had to deal with this mentality from both a personal and a leadership perspective, and it is never easy, but it is one of the most important things we all need to do.

This blog is a modified extract from my book and we also highlight these key thought processes in more depth within our My Purpose Workshops.

The My Purpose method

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