Leadership beyond agendas and the status quo

Andy Long on being a better board member – and the consequences of leadership that fails to challenge themselves and others.

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I am ashamed to say that I’m a member of a bad board of directors. No one on the board is a bad person, but as a group, we’ve failed in our duty to provide direction. The organization is a local chamber of commerce and we are out of money. We also have both staff members resigning and a hazy future.

Three years ago, we were excited. We had a new brand and vision, had hired an executive director we felt great about, and had about $20,000 in reserves. What happened? Financially, we took a revenue cut as the city and county tourism appropriations to the chamber were cut. Our expenses increased as we gave the new director a raise and had moved locations to a higher-traffic area. At the time, each decision seemed like a good one, but as our reserves slowly dwindled away, the board did not step up, force adjustments, and provide course correction.

This is one example. But all around me, I see boards that aren’t very effective. Many city councils and county commissioners in rural areas preserve the status quo and slowly see their population and tax revenue decline. Many school boards have individuals who come into their role with an agenda for or against people in the school. In rural areas, these are our biggest institutions – and when they are led by people who don’t understand their role, it keeps our communities from moving forward.

Robert Greenleaf, the author of Servant Leadership, saw the dangers of ineffective boards. He has good suggestions for trustees, councilmembers, commissioners, and directors as servants.

One challenge organizations face is there is an operational necessity to be both dogmatic and open to change. Organizations need to have processes, routines, and operational guidance to keep the day-to-day work of the organization moving. Administrators and staff become very efficient at these. Administrators that appear to be successful usually are able to find ways for the organization to operate more efficiently in the organization’s dogma.

To succeed, organizations need to continually evolve and be open to change. This is where a board steps in. In Servant Leadership, Greenlee writes:

Trustees have a better chance than the administrator to be open to change. In fact, this is their role – to maintain openness to change, which their relative immunity from day-to-day operational pressures makes possible. Yet administrator and trustee are not sharply differentiated roles. In fact, they are a close mesh, in which the administrator should be mostly dogma and a little bit open to change, and the trustee should be a little bit dogma and mostly open to change. The two roles, closely linked and working in harmony, should take care of both today and tomorrow.

In the boards I’ve reported to and been a part of, dogma is ruling the day. The administration presents their ideas and suggestions and the board accepts, without providing additional insight or challenging the suggestions. For example, I attended college board meetings for five years – about 60 meetings. The board approved every voting issue the way the administration wanted. All but three of the voting issues were unanimous. Over five years, the individual votes were around 657 to 3.

Our communities, counties, and schools are important institutions. For us to be successful, we need boards to push toward a better future; to drive change in these organizations. If you are a part of one, here is my challenge to you:

Do your research. Investigate best practices in good organizations similar to yours. Take the time to explore new possibilities for your organization outside of the monthly meeting.

Do your homework. If you want to see an organization’s priorities, look at the budget. In most cities, counties, and schools, the budget is complicated, so most board members accept what the administration tells them. Make sure you take time to look through and understand the budget. If you don’t study the money and make suggestions, you can’t drive change.

Speak up. Our cities, counties, and schools need to move forward. They need your ideas. For the ideas to be considered, you need to share them. With the structure of meetings being set up by administrators and ran formally, it is easy to sit back and enjoy the free meal that might come with the meeting. You can’t do this. You’ve done your research and your homework – so speak up, share your vision, challenge the status quo, and move the organization forward.

I need to be a better board member. In the past, our rural communities had leaders who moved them forward, who weren’t afraid to try new things, and who formed the communities we have come to love. It is urgent that our current board members step up to drive positive change in our local institutions to make us stronger.

Andy Long is executive director of the McCook Economic Development Corp. and leads community efforts to facilitate the formation, retention, attraction, and expansion of businesses in the area. He is the director of Cultivate Rural Leaders, a nonprofit providing rural communities and organizations with leadership education.

For more Civic Nebraska Writers Group columns, click here.

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Andy Long

Since I originally wrote this it has been impressive to see the local chamber board step up to get feedback from the community, a new vision, a new director, and has generated local excitement. It was too bad it took a crisis to make this happen. It was also impressive to see local leaders rally around the chamber and provide support for the organization to get back on its feet.

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