A Call for Courage in the Boardroom

bizOne night a few weeks ago, I was flipping through the television channels and came across one of my favorite movies of all time: The Blind Side. My husband was out at a meeting, so I settled in to watch it for the umpteenth time. In one scene, Michael Oher, the gifted football player who came from a horrendous background, has to write a final essay for high school and chooses to write about the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson and focus on what he thinks is the meaning of courage.

In my work with governing boards, I have often thought about what it means to have courage in the boardroom. Does it mean striking out with a new service or business venture? Yes, it could. Does it mean taking on financial risk in these rapidly changing times? Yes, it could. It could also mean considering a new affiliation or partnership with an organization outside of the usual circle of business. All of these examples look at courage in an external way. But it’s also important to consider the need for courage when looking internally, both within the board itself and within individual board members.

This call for internal courage is driven by the inherent, foundational tensions of good governance found in a board’s work. These tensions are rarely agenda items, yet they greatly impact how a board does its business. Here are some examples of common foundational tensions:

  • the various personalities that make up the board
  • the individual board member and board-as-a-whole paradigm
  • the board-CEO relationship
  • the board chair-CEO relationship
  • the roles of the board and staff
  • the inherent conundrum of volunteer board members governing an organization staffed by professionals in the field

It is exhausting just to think about! Being cognitively and emotionally aware of these tensions has an impact on individual participation and the effectiveness of the board as a whole.

Having the courage to recognize these tensions in one’s self as a board member is critical to contributing to good board decision making, particularly during these complex, challenging times. Without self-awareness of the tensions, some of us might feel a niggling doubt in our gut but not work to identify its cause or allow it to surface. Why not? Because as human beings we are wired to respond to tension and conflict with the fight-or-flight response. Without self-awareness of the tensions, some of us will hold back and take steps to avoid conflict. We’ll keep our mouths shut or say things we do not fully mean just to keep the peace. We do not want to rock the boat or name the elephant in the room, even when our gut is telling us that something needs to be done. Some of us will become “certain” and put our views out so strongly that we close the door to further discussion. Without self-awareness, we can interpret disagreement or another perspective as a personal attack. All of these responses limit one’s ability to contribute fully. With awareness and a good dose of courage, we can step in, speak up, ask questions, and encourage others, even when it might mean things get worse before they get better.

Our goal as individual board members and the board as a whole is to advance the mission of the organization. To do that, we must have dialogue, make decisions, and take actions that are in service to the system. When one of the foundational tensions of good governance is out of balance and we do not address it as a board, what is the impact on the organization? It may be financial, human, or inconsistent with our values, but rest assured, there is often an impact.

Perhaps as organizations rooted in Quaker principles, we struggle with this dilemma even more than do others. We want to focus on the positive in every situation, see the Light in every person, go about our business with forbearance, and place high value on living and working in community. But for how long and at what price? I am not promoting the making of mountains out of molehills and calling out every situation where things may be off balance. But to allow any of the fundamental elements of board dynamics to be significantly off-center for a long period of time is inconsistent with the courage that defines our best work.

Quaker principles also tell us to speak our truth—speak truth to power—and act with integrity both as individuals and as organizations each and every day. In our roles as board members and boards as a whole, we need to remember this and seek to act with courage in the boardroom as we work in service of the mission of these valuable organizations.

If your gut tells you something is not right, take the time to reflect and try to identify what it might be. Asking a query always helps me: Are board and staff members clear on their roles and respecting boundaries? Which relationship might be out of balance? Are we as a board functioning well together? Do we engage in productive discussion and freely express our individual opinions? Do we as board members each do our part in keeping one another and the board as a whole focused in the appropriate areas? Are we as a board organized and functioning in ways that best serve the organization? And if something is not as it should be, will you ignore it to keep the peace, or will you act with courage?


Jane Mack

Jane Mack is chief executive officer of Friends Services for the Aging. She has a master’s in organizational development and leadership and is a member of the Standards for Excellence Committee for the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations. Jane is a member of Middletown Meeting in Lima, Pa.

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