Leadership Reframed
Posted on: July 29, 2020 at 8:27 am

By Marion Lee, CFRE

In 2005, Barbara Taylor, Richard Chait and William Ryan wrote Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Board.  This book and its follow-up: The Practitioners Guide to Governance as Leadership from Cathy Trower are not easy reads, but well worth the effort.  Chait and his co-authors present functional Board governance as a series of how-tos (modes and mind-sets) versus the more common concept of to-dos (tasks and technical).  In his book, Chait introduces the concept of the “generative or sensemaker” mode of governance added to strategic and fiduciary modes.

The principles and themes of Governance and Leadership were derived from four questions the authors felt were key to the on-going conundrum surrounding Board performance.  Of these four questions, the following is the pivotal apex:

Why do nonprofits work so hard to find good Board members but let them become disengaged intellectually and lacking in definitive goals?

All nonprofit organizations want “good” people on their Boards.  “Good” is defined slightly differently in each case but generally consists of people who believe in the mission, are representative of the community, have or are connected to affluence and/or influence and have skills and talents that can be of use to the organization.  Once good Board members are found, the functionality of a Board goes awry when the:

  1. Board Chair lacks confidence or is reluctant to commit time, energy and skill to lead the Board and hold themselves and others accountable.
  2. CEO and Staff feel threatened by or do not know how to engage the Board. This scenario promotes the creation of Rubber Stamp Boards: Board follows Staff propositions that are considered “no-brainers” requiring little hard thought.
  3. Board members have not accepted their responsibilities and roles. This leads to Boards that have Mid-Level Effectiveness: Board commits to low level thinking usually about proposed solutions to pre-determined problems presented by Staff.

In the simplest of terms, if a Board member’s brain is not engaged in critical thinking and problem solving, they will have little to no positive effect on the organization other than as a list of names. As one former employer said: “Give them something to do that makes them use their brains! If you don’t, they will get involved in things you don’t want them to or be, like dead fish-they stink!”

High-level effective Board members are leaders.  They discuss crucial questions that require critical thinking and have an emotional and intellectual understanding of the organization’s mission, vision and programs.

The true key to high functioning governance lies in the character of the Board Chair who will create a model for good Board governance that can last decades or turn around a lackadaisical team.  A high-level effective Board Chair may not have years of experience on nonprofit Boards, but they do know how to lead and inspire by:

  1. engaging the Board in critical thinking as a team,
  2. delegating specific responsibilities to team members with well-defined goals,
  3. supporting individual members and committees offering assistance as needed,
  4. holding team members accountable and taking appropriate actions,
  5. working in tandem with the CEO or Executive Director

Chait points out, “Governance as leadership requires that Boards cultivate the art and skills of retrospective sensemaking, nuanced discernment and robust discourse. (oversight, foresight, and insight).”

Recent events have place unparalleled stress on the nonprofit community.  Some of this stress might have been mitigated if we practiced more of the generative state of governance focusing on leadership as well as stewardship.

It isn’t enough to just work better as a Board; we must do better work.