The question of what makes a good board member first depends upon the type of board to which the member belongs.

“One size does not fit all.” The question of what makes a good board member first depends upon the type of board to which the member belongs. While all board members are expected to provide organizational direction and leadership, the expectations of a fundraising focused board member are quite different from those of a more traditional advisory/governing board member.

However, assuming you are expected to do much more than write a large check (and recruit others to do likewise), here are some general leadership principles to guide your service to your organization of choice:

  1. Servant Leadership
  2. Critical Oversight
  3. Freedom to Fail (Forward)
  4. “Big-Picture” and “Long-Run” (Strategic) Thinking
  5. Listen First. Speak Second.

Robert K. Greenleaf’s “The Servant as Leader” essay (1970) may have kicked off a new era of leadership literature, but this concept goes back to the biblical days. However, the definition of servant leadership remains vague, even as refined by Greenleaf. A review of the literature might lead one to conclude that servant leadership is more art than science. Still, the basic idea of serving from a leadership position — meeting the needs of others, empowering individuals and the organization, putting them first and making it about them and not you — is a powerful concept that can be applied in any board role.

Critical Oversight

It is every board member’s duty to think critically and without bias toward organization(s) or person(s). “How do I know what I think I know?” should be every board member’s mantra. Trust is important in organizations, but we have seen far too many boards accept the words of staff and other board members without evidence or support, to the detriment of their organizations. You don’t have to be a police investigator to practice critical thinking in your organization. Just make sure your decisions are based on evidence and fact, not hearsay. Seek opposing views to avoid “groupthink.” Above all, ensure that the board conducts its due diligence and the organization consistently uses best practices, such as check co-signers and other critical procedure, are practiced to ensure effective oversight.

Freedom to Fail (Forward)

If your organization has proper checks-and-balances in place, including a board practicing evidence-based decision-making, then make sure you don’t go to the other extreme and micro-manage or demand unfailing perfection from your staff. An organization that takes no risks is an organization, ironically, destined to fail. Times change. If organizations—and boards—don’t innovate, they will be relegated to the dustbin of history. But innovation is rarely achieved on the first try, and it certainly is not achieved by playing it safe, or doing what you have always done. Give your staff the opportunity and support to try new things, to think outside the box, indeed, to innovate—and to fail. But, as James Maxwell advocates in his book, Failing Forward, make sure you provide a support system for your staff to fail forward. Don’t penalize or criticize such failures; praise them and assist with re-tooling for the next, improved attempt. Corollary: Don’t be the board member who squashes an idea with, “We tried that before, and it didn’t work.” Better: “We had some problems carrying out a similar plan in the past. Times have changed, but here are some pitfalls that, if still relevant, we might be able to help you avoid…”

“Big-Picture” and “Long-Run” (Strategic) Thinking

Many people claim to be strategic thinkers, but it is rare to find folks who are fully aligned with their fellow board members on the big-picture and long-run plan for their organization. As the adage says, “Life is what happens while we are making our plans.” Strategic plans are important; however, the longer the time span covered by a strategic plan, the less likely the future will unfold anything like your strategic thinkers have envisioned. It is best for board members to share an organizational vision (big-picture, long-run), as well as mission—and talk about it, monitor it, and be able to roll with the punches life throws. Organizational resilience should be the focus of long-run strategic thinking—not rigid adherence to an increasingly-irrelevant strategic plan. Strategic plans can be sacrificed, but organizational vision and mission should not.

Listen First. Speak Second

Covey’s fifth habit of highly-effective people, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” certainly holds with board members. Proper understanding, from attentive listening, is vital for a critical-thinking board member; speaking second for a servant-leader. Remember: You are not where you are for organization/staff to serve you. You are where you are to serve organization. This oftentimes means providing a sympathetic ear (i.e., listening without talking) and working together to develop alternative solutions when the course shifts due to circumstances outside or the board’s control.

This article is published by Yvonne Adkins of Adkins & Company, a Kentucky-based consulting group whose mission is to position charter schools for success by providing boards, operators and authorizers with access to high quality services and expertise.
Yvonne Adkins