Board Leadership – Part 1

Reprinted from Charity Channel

It all started with purchasing a shopping center.

As the executive director, I was challenged to administer, supervise, fundraise, create, mentor, monitor, market, counsel and lead. After eight years of capacity building, organizational developing and training board and staff members at a dying family service agency, we were a team prepared to conduct a successful capital campaign. With a little help from our friends, we positioned the family service agency as a well-deserved recipient of a large, anonymous gift from an “angel”—what every campaign needs, right? This individual’s generous campaign donation of McDonald’s stocks (along with other smaller gifts) enabled us to purchase a small shopping center with monthly income from a non-profit health clinic and a pizza business that helped us ensure sustainability.

Sounds like a dream-come-true, right? After a successful, intense, time-consuming capital campaign, we were challenged to deal with negative outcomes: a misinformed board, without purpose, driven to micro-manage, and with misunderstandings about leadership.

In this first of a two-part series, I am going to explore questions about board leadership that arose out of this experience: What is leadership? And, how do we ensure the “right” leadership for board members?

I suggest that we engage community members on our boards who possess, or are at least open to learning, leadership skills. No problem, right? Let’s first clarify what we mean by leadership to insure we are all singing from the same hymnal.

Leadership is the ability to accomplish positive organizational and personal outcomes via effective relationships.

Leadership skills can include the ability to:

  • communicate effectively both verbally and non-verbally;
  • motive others successfully;
  •  maintain a sense of fairness, justice and inclusion;
  • take risks, be bold and try new things;
  • problem-solve and make decisions;
  • resolve conflict well;
  • create, energize and lead teams with positive outcomes; and/or
  • manage, plan and administer strategically.

Keeping in mind that the latter skills for board members apply to managing and administering the work of the board, not the work of the staff, all of these apply to effective governance.

Next, let’s demystify some myths about leadership.

Leadership Myths: Leadership Reality:
People with titles, rank or high positions are leaders. True leadership is based on actions, results, abilities and effectiveness.
Only “great people” are leaders. You don’t have to be a heroine or charismatic to be a leader.
Leadership is complicated. KISS- Most leadership skills are basic, easy to learn and understandable.
Leaders are born, not created. Personal traits and intellect are critical, but effort and skills are more powerful.
Leaders are determined by crises or innovations. Daily, routine behavior better defines leaders, especially when they demonstrating trust, reliability and collaboration.
Leadership is a rare ability. Most people have the ability to become good leaders with some key indicators as: the ability to care about others; have a sense of purpose; and provide direction.
Effective leadership is based on control, manipulation and force. Good leaders gain followers out of respect, motivation and common goals.
Good leaders have more education than others. Higher education does not create a leader since experience is the best teacher.

Some well-known leaders support these leadership realities:

“Leadership: The art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

“A leader is someone you would follow to a place you would not go to by yourself.” – Joel Barker

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” – John Quincy Adams

“Don’t settle. Stay hungry. Stay foolish. Don’t lose faith.” – Steve Jobs

Improving board leadership is a challenge that can be met with the tips offered. Lessons learned about leadership can help nonprofit leaders avoid the board problems we experienced when purchasing a shopping center. With staff guidance, board members can lead our organizations toward sustainability and excellence. In Part 2, I will have suggestions for how to build a strong board with leadership qualities in mind.