Friday, July 24, 2009

The Weak Board Leader

If you work/volunteer in nonprofits long enough, you'll have the chance to experience a variety of board leadership styles. Looking back over my career, I've probably worked for at least a dozen board presidents (or, should I say, I can remember twelve of them). A couple of them were founders and each stepped aside during my tenure, which in itself was a somewhat daring and fragile moment. Fortunately, in both instances the transition was successful -- the founders were comfortable precisely because their successors were known to them and were not set on making radical change.

Of this group, only a couple had weak leadership skills. By that I mean they personally struggled to focus on the big picture, clearly more comfortable engaging in minutiae or micro-management, or they failed to keep the board focused on the overarching issues. They seemed unable or unwilling to guide discussion, to prod or persuade, to understand the need for structure as a means of communicating needs and divvying up work.

One can argue that such a person should have never been made the leader in the first place. And it's true that a nominating or board development committee that is on the ball would have determined the organization's future leadership needs and would have recruited and groomed individuals to meet those needs. That's an ongoing conversation for this committee.

In some instances, such as a founding board leader transition or when a board leader leaves suddenly, the next best person may be the "caretaker" or "place-holder" leader -- at least for a brief time. This is a situation where every board member and the executive staff need to step up to assist, to fill in leadership gaps, and to ensure that forward momentum is continued. This can be accomplished is several ways, I think:
  • greater input from the executive committee -- a smaller group of board leaders can work with the board chair to develop structure for meetings and board work, and to debrief after meetings to suggest future strategies for guiding the work of the board
  • thoughtful prompting from key board members/staff during meetings to assist the chair in keeping discussion on track and moving decision-making forward
  • frequent communication between the executive and the chair that focuses on tactical suggestions from the executive
An organization can suffer from the benign neglect of a weak board leader, but it doesn't have to if the rest of the "team" understands this is a situation where everyone needs to pitch in.

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