Board Leadership: Dispositions for Success

The most exceptional boards for Jewish day schools are composed of individuals who are committed to the mission of educating youth within a religious framework. They put principles and best practices into play to ensure that they are providing strong governance for the school. The collective will of the group is dedicated not only to holding the keys to the public trust of the institution but to advancing the reach and impact of the mission.

The leadership of such a board must likewise be exceptional. Board leaders must be able to plan ahead and think strategically; they are most successful when committed to continuous learning and have a willingness to attempt new things. The best leaders have great questions, not all of the answers. Catalytic questions that may provide strategic direction include: What do you want the legacy of this board to be? What could we stop doing that we are currently doing? In what headline would we like our school’s name to be included?

Boards are made up of a set of formal and informal interactions, history and habits. The best boards are able to identify the habits that should become traditions and those which should be left behind. It takes a strong board chair, willing to assess the work of the board and look at things from all sides, to establish this culture of inquiry. According to Nancy Axelrod, founder of Nonprofit Leadership Services, culture determines who makes the decisions, who speaks to whom and in what manner, how the board and head of school relate to each other, and even where board members sit at the board table. A culture of inquiry advances respectful dialogue, encourages healthy debate and does not shy away from complex or challenging situations.

With intentionality, the board chair can tackle challenging subjects while engaging board members, encouraging candor and thoughtful decision making. A strong sense of self and emotional intelligence is required to truly achieve this. Intentional practices include structuring the board to fulfill essential governance duties and to support organizational priorities. Ensuring that all board members participate in a structured orientation and are actively contributing their skills and expertise is a great starting point.

Consider the following example: In a recent board meeting, a board member who often plays the role of healthy skeptic asked a question concerning the impact of a school program on the budget. Because he had questioned the value of the program in the past, other board members marginalized his question and moved on. Later, when a respected veteran board member asked the same question, the board took the time to ask questions and gain more information about the program. Boards need healthy skeptics, so the person who questions concepts, tests new ideas and raises intelligent doubt on issues should be embraced, not dismissed. A skilled board leader will advance the culture of inquiry by appropriately recognizing the healthy skeptic within the context of the full board.

A strong board leader knows where the institution is going and is able to provide clarity to others as well. Understanding the vision, identifying priorities and guiding the rest of the board toward that big picture is a trait of strong leadership. While it is easy to get caught up in high-urgency agenda topics, ensuring that focus is placed on items that are high impact and low urgency allows for a longer runway for good decision making. Taking the time to review previous agendas to determine if time is being spent on appropriate priorities is a task worth undertaking. It is often in hindsight that we can learn if we are focusing our attention appropriately. Questions a board leader can raise specific to the success of the meeting include: How much of our time was spent on operational versus strategic matters? What was the most interesting or engaging part of today’s meeting? How could this meeting have been improved?

A strong board leader will establish key objectives for each board meeting. Developing two or three questions related to the greater goals of the institution will sharpen strategic focus and help keep the board from delving into operational issues that are the purview of the head of school. While the board is responsible for the life of the school and is accountable to the public trust, the head of school is responsible for the affairs of the school and is accountable to the board. Clarity of purpose and recognition that the effectiveness of the board and head of school are interdependent can take a school in a very positive direction.

Engaging in a constructive partnership with the head of school is also a sign of strong leadership. It is the board leader’s responsibility to frame the partnership in the context of good governance practices, ensuring clarity and understanding between the role of the board and the role of the head of school. Mutual respect, trust and support are the cornerstones of a strong partnership; shared purpose and mission-driven focus create strong context for the good of the institution. This is, however, not an easy task and is a frequent source of conflict. For example, during one board meeting, a board member began questioning the head of school about an operational issue. When the answers did not satisfy the board member, he continued with sharper and more aggressive questions. While the discomfort of others was palpable, no one had the courage to step in and remind the board member that the questions were not really the work of the board nor was his manner respectful.

When we allow disrespect or the blurring of roles and responsibilities, we are not supporting a culture of inquiry. The ability to courageously and sensitively call individuals on questionable or inappropriate actions or behaviors is an indicator of leadership. It can be challenging to fulfill the role of “caller,” especially in a setting where friends and colleagues are board members. This critical skill of gently raising the expectations for engagement and holding board members responsible for their actions, if employed with empathy, will raise the level of board effectiveness. This action must be undertaken with a servant’s heart and with the goal of improving the institution.

Finally, strong board leaders recognize that connecting with others allows us to have greater impact. Providing time for board members to get to know each other is time well-spent. Questions at the beginning of a board meeting can encourage that sharing: Why were you drawn to serve on this board? What is the greatest skill you bring to this board? What is one way you stood for the mission of this school since our last meeting? What is one thing I could do to make this a stronger board? Boards that have developed shared understandings about purpose, roles and goals have achieved this by investing in their own relationships and their relationship with the school.

Successful boards and schools take time, energy and a commitment to the mission. Clarity of purpose, intentional meeting practices, a constructive partnership, and the building of a culture of inquiry are all tools that strong leaders can utilize to move their boards forward. These skills and tools, when coupled with encouraging board members to engage and participate fully, will assist in the development of future leadership for the institution as individuals will recognize the value of each voice in the boardroom.

Susan Decker
Leadership Dispositions
Knowledge Topics