Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

October 30, 2018


Paul Zilz

Seven Dysfunctional Board Leadership Approaches…and the Solution

How transparent, accountable, results-oriented, and future-focused is your board? Does your board follow one of the dysfunctional “Seven P” governance approaches that hinder effective board strategic leadership?

Years ago, I was serving in a leadership role during a transition of governance on a board of directors. This membership organization had undergone numerous years of dysfunction and distrust due to a lack of clarity of roles, among other issues. Relationships suffered. Resources languished. Results for the people being served were sub-optimal. It was time for change, especially change at the board level, if the organization were to turn around and thrive.

The person to whom the board would be delegating significant authority for achieving results (CEO, for shorthand) gave a brief talk about his observations regarding the forms of governance he had seen used in the type of organization in which we served. Perhaps you can relate to some or all of these various forms of governance present in organizations. With that assumption, I will share a paraphrased version of this CEO’s observations in the hopes of ultimately encouraging each of you to not settle for the cards you have been dealt in terms of decision making approaches, but to make the systemic board leadership changes that might propel your organization to higher performance. Please keep in mind that the following governance approaches are not mutually exclusive, are often exhibited at the same time, and sometimes are used in a deliberate yet dysfunctional manner to leverage each other for maximum effect.

  1. Power Governance: Who carries the most clout? Regardless of how “clout” is determined, that person’s opinion often carries the day, regardless of the depth of that person’s understanding of any given issue or the role that person plays in the organization. If that person has a strong opinion on large or small matters, that person will often get his or her way.
  2. Political Governance: Whoever can line up the most votes among the membership will carry the decision. While this sounds appealing from an American democratic perspective, it is not the most efficient or effective approach for organizations to use to make most decisions, especially if it is structured to be used for decisions ranging from the color of the office carpet, to who is hired, to large real estate transactions.
  3. Personality Governance: Who is the most persuasive communicator? The most articulate person who has a mastery of rhetoric will sway the decisions. With this approach, pity the prudent but deliberate and reflective thinker or the wise person who does not prefer the limelight of publicly sharing his or her thoughts.
  4. Pocket Book Governance: With this approach, the decision that keeps costs to the minimum is the decision that should be made. This approach focuses on keeping the costs low at all costs, even if the mission is compromised, and even if the results intended to be achieved for the people served suffers.
  5. Principal Leader Governance: Whoever is the operational leader, whether it be an Executive Director, CEO, Senior Pastor, or Headmaster, that person’s opinion is what matters for all decisions, whether the decision is operational or board-level strategic. If the Principal Leader wants it, he or she gets it.
  6. Popularity Governance: What is everyone else doing? If our peers or larger or well-respected organizations are doing it, then we should too … even if it is not consistent with our risk appetite or our mission context or our resources, etc… The key is to “keep up with the Joneses.” That is success!
  7. Passivity Governance: Why bother? Whatever is being considered won’t make a difference. Let’s just keep doing what we have always done. It has worked thus far.

So what is the alternative to these depressing and dysfunctional approaches? If you are looking for a governance system based on servant-leadership, role clarity, transparency, and accountability for achieving real results for those served within boundaries of ethics and prudence, then you should investigate Policy Governance®. This system of governance, designed by John Carver over three decades ago, is based on ten universal and integrated governance principles that have been applied to many types of organizations, from churches to credit unions, from civic government to school systems, from not-for-profit organizations to for-profit corporations. For more information, please see our resources, services & solutions, or feel free to contact us at The Governance Coach™. Our passion is to help your organization make a real difference in the world for those you serve!




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