Expert Coaching. Practical Resources.

February 3, 2022

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Paul Zilz

Board Leadership, Blue Skies and Growing Up

Children ask questions that are both profound and require clear, age-appropriate responses. “Why is the sky blue?” Why does the sky have clouds?” “Why is there pink, red, and orange in the sky when the sun sets?” Behind each of these questions is a whole lot of science about water vapor and the color spectrum. They all require a certain level of understanding in order to answer clearly and properly in a way the child understands and can grasp intellectually. This is usually one of the easier roles of parenting or mentoring, is it not?

Effective board leadership also requires asking and clearly answering two profound questions: 1) “Why do you serve on a board?” And 2) “Why does our organization do what it does?”

The first question gets at our motivation for board membership. “Why do you serve on a board?” Is it to lead first and “straighten out” the organization? Is it to “be seen” and to develop contacts that can further our business interests? Is it to serve as a consultant to management? Is it to “sit” on a board or to serve on a board?

Why do you serve on a board?

Across the philosophical spectrum from secular humanism to Christianity, the concept of servant-leadership offers an important contribution regarding the motivation of those who would lead by calling, by appointment, by election, or by their own volition.  It offers an important lesson to those who are members of a board. Robert Greenleaf, who has written extensively on this subject, states “the servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.” Greenleaf writes that “he or she is sharply different from the person who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material positions.” Jesus Christ stated, “Whoever would be great among you must be servant of all.” Indeed, humility and a desire to advance the interests of others is key to being an effective servant-leader.

Why is this motivation critical to serving as an effective board member? Service and leadership must be balanced for effective governance. The board serves the interests of its legal (and moral) owners (those invested in the organizations’ purpose) rather than wielding power. The principal focus is on being a servant – a servant who leads, not on being a leader. John Carver, the creator of the Policy Governance® system, states that “Proper governance is a logical impossibility if it does not include the concept of Servant-Leadership.” You can only provide effective strategic board leadership if you first serve. Servant-leadership involves listening intentionally and closely to those people who are invested in your organization’s purpose, your owners.

The second question is equally profound: “Why does our organization do what it does?” Stated differently, “what is our organization for (not what do we do)?” Has your board identified the benefits the organization is supposed to produce on behalf of those who are invested in your purpose, your owners? Has your board identified who are to be the beneficiaries of those benefits? Has your board taken a further step to determine the relative value of those benefits and beneficiaries, perhaps by prioritizing them, and to determine what it is worth to produce those benefits?

Too often boards spend precious board time talking about operational details without first understanding and answering the above questions that are key to providing strategic board leadership. By not clearly answering the above questions, the board has no effective measure of organizational effectiveness and efficiency.

And here is the kicker: The two questions are related! The concepts of servant-leadership and clearly defining what the organization is for are inter-dependent. Your board serves those legal (and moral) owners, those invested in the organization’s purpose, by listening to and dialoguing with them about their values regarding what the organization is for. By engaging with those owners, the board will more confidently and accurately clarify the benefits to be produced by the organization, the beneficiaries to be served by the organization, and the worth to produce those benefits, including the relative value of the different benefits being provided the beneficiaries.

Those “why” questions are the most profound of all.

We never really grow up and know it all…just like children, we need to keep asking good “why” questions!

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