6 Qualities of a Board Chair as Servant Leader


“The chair is the servant-leader of the board. The board is servant-leader of the ownership. The chair is, therefore, servant-leader of the servant-leaders.”

~John Carver

The Unique Double Servant-Leadership Role of the Board Chairperson by John Carver is chapter three of the book we are using as a guide, Practicing Servant-Leadership: Succeeding Through Trust, Bravery, and Forgiveness by Larry C. Spears and Michelle Lawrence. Last week, we discussed the role of the members of a board of directors. Since this chapter was chocked full of good information, I will discuss the end of the chapter today.

Carver argues that a common mistake of boards of directors today is that it looks to the CEO to tell it what to do. Ask any board today where its last agenda for the meeting came from and you will find that it is generally the CEO or Executive Director.

I served as the executive director of a nonprofit community-based organization a few years ago, and I will tell you that I managed the board of directors. I had written and won several grants for the organization (that it was building from ground zero) and I helped to recruit the board of directors. Although well-meaning people, they had no idea of how to create or run a board of directors. I found that I was creating and reporting to the board!

That experience reminds me of the Geico commercial where the elderly ladies are sitting in the front room and one of the ladies is showing the other two her Facebook timeline which she had created on her front room wall. One of the ladies said, “That’s not how any of this works!”

At any rate, there should be a distinction between the line of CEO and board chairperson. Most board chairs will not like what Carver says because he says that the board chairperson is staff (The board chairperson is staff to the board, (that is to staff the management) to the board, while the CEO is line. The board chairperson is staff to the board just as the finance officer is staff to the CEO. The board chairperson role, as important as it is, can have no real authority over line personnel- which includes the CEO and the other employees of the organization.

The chairperson’s obligation and authority can only derive from a group decision and group expectations. I discussed this “one voice” approach last week. Remember this does not imply unanimous votes. What is implies is that without a group mindset, the board lacks the discipline and until the board exercises group decision-making power, it has absolutely no authority over anyone.

Carver believes that this type of discipline for a board is difficult to achieve given the current consciousness of how boards operate. And so the vacuum is filled with uncoordinated individual actions- or worse, the board settles into the “indolent” comfort of letting someone else just tell them what to do. Sometimes that person is the board chair, but most often that person is the CEO. Boy, do I remember that! It’s just the way we’ve always done it.

A powerful thought from John Carver is this, “Governance can only have the needed integrity when boards, not their CEO’s assume responsibility for governance.” He says it would be a breath of fresh air if board meetings truly became the board’s meetings, not the CEO’s meetings for the board.

Wow, he stepped on some toes with that statement!

Carver quotes a greeting card that sums up a chair’s responsibility, “A friend is someone who learns the words of your song, then sings them back to you when you forget.” In this way, the board chair can be encouraging, inspiring, challenging, enlightening, and even cajoling – all within the servant leadership consciousness that call for this kind of tough-love leadership. This kind of tough-love leadership doesn’t let the board members off the hook, though. Group responsibility is tricky and something we are not used to as boards. As boards, we must have the discipline for the group responsibility for governance.

The deal is that there is an irony in that the group charges and empowers one of its own to help it be true to itself and its self-defined responsibility. Your experience and mine on the board makes a huge difference in board effectiveness, right? The tone of interpersonal exchange, the board’s relationship to staff, and the board’s relationship to ownership.

The irony is this: the more the board embrace’s group responsibility and expresses this through a coherent governance model, the less it matters who the board chair is. It’s like that quote from Lao Tzu, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

So, how does a board chair garner the discipline to guide a board to group responsibility? What are the core characteristics of a board chairperson who can carry out such responsibility? I am glad you asked! Carver provides us with 6. And they all align with servant leadership. I’ll give a re-cap of each below.

Personal Integrity

The board chairperson must deal – in a straightforward manner – with the trustee relationships and commitments from a place of authenticity. This means no playing favorites and engaging in games. The board chair’s behavior is guided by principles and not politics.

Ability to Leave the CEO Alone

A board chair must have no need to interfere with the CEO’s responsibility. While a chair’s intervention between the board and its CEO can ease the board member’s anxiety in the short term can inevitably damage the proper board-CEO relationship.

Intelligence and Conceptual Flexibility

Board members must have the ability to think conceptually. At this level of leadership, the ability to deal with concepts, constructs, and principles is critical to the success of a servant leader who serves as a board chairperson.

Mindfulness of Group Process

A board chairperson must not live and operate naively unaware of interpersonal and political realities. Rather, a good candidate should be comfortable with group processes and should have the ability to capitalize on the group’s skills and talents. More than that, a board chair should operate in a calm and cool manner when the group process goes awry. Especially when you will be blamed for it.

A Disposition of Servanthood

A good chairperson is a servant leader who never forgets on whose behalf he or she works and by whose grace he or she exercises authority. This is the most important characteristics. Personally speaking. A board chair works for the people!

Ability to Confront and Lead

A board chair must be able to lead with authority and confront the board members and group with their own or its behavior. A good candidate must be able to say, “We committed ourselves to X yet we at this moment are doing Y. We must either stop or change our commitment. Which shall it be?”

Servant Leaders who serve as board chairpersons understand that these characteristics are ones that allow the leader to modestly in command. This is the way of a servant leader. A board chair’s role is both compassionate and compelling. It requires self-discipline as it is asking others to do the same.

At the end of the day, it’s what Greenleaf has always challenged us to BE as Servant leaders; the most morally justifiable leaders and leadership are founded in, legitimated by, and yes, even sanctified by servanthood.

This kind of chair never forgets that the conductor doesn’t make the music.

To Board Chairpersons,

Dr. Crystal


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