Part I: The Individual
Silence. It can fill
a pause that conveys reflection. It can be a sign of comfortableness between
friends. It can mark the end of conversation when nothing is left to be
said. Silence can be golden and it can be leaden.
What does silence
mean in a board meeting? When a question is posed and no one ventures
an answer? When dissension produces only voiceless tension? When commitment
is needed and no one steps forward? Time stretches out like a taut rubber
band, or as poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote in Silent Moon, "Tis
visible silence, still as the hour-glass."
Have you ever been
in such a situation? We have. Oh, there may be murmurings, pleasantries,
motions of going through a meeting agenda, but there is no meaningful
discussion or debate. No challenge to the status quo. There is a paucity
of ideas, of emotion. Essentially silence pervades like twilights
Weve been in
circumstances where such deadening silence seems to be the norm during
board meetings. It reveals a deadened spirit. Its our responsibility
to discover why. What has led to this state of entropy, of inaction? Can
it be changed, or is it irreversible?
A silent board can
result from many causes. Whatever the cause, silence is an indication
that a board has abdicated responsibility the board collectively and
its members individually. Or perhaps it never assumed responsibility to
the individuals responsibility as a member of the board be it
trustee, director or governor. The Oxford English Dictionary defines
a responsibility as "a charge, trust or duty for which one is responsible."
It provides three applicable definitions for responsible: "morally
accountable for ones actions, capable of rational conduct; answerable
to a charge; and capable of fulfilling an obligation or trust."
When a board member
abdicates or neglects to assume responsibility, it means that he or she
is failing to fulfill a trust extended in good faith and is also failing
to discharge a duty, a moral accountability. This is a puzzlement. The
people who sit on boards generally are quite responsible in the personal,
business and civic facets of their lives.
Why do conscientious,
responsible people behave differently in occupying a position on the board?
Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership observes, "Most trustees
I know just dont care enough. If trustees really cared, ideas and
people would blossom all over the place."
I think hes
right. When a board meeting is an ordeal to be endured, service has become
a burdensome chore. Greenleaf admits, "And I am keenly aware of what
unrewarding experiences those were for me as an ineffective
come to mind. How does it come to pass that people who dont care
about the institution are asked to join the board? How can a board fulfill
its responsibility to act as trustee on behalf of the public interest
if its seats are filled with people who dont care? On the other
hand, why do people who dont care continue to occupy those seats?
Why did they agree in the first place? These are rhetorical questions.
Peter Drucker weighs
in with questions more to the point in Managing the Non-Profit Organization,
"The ultimate question...is, What should I hold myself accountable
for by way of contribution and results? What should this institution hold
itself accountable for by way of contribution and results? What should
both this institution and I be remembered for?"
For many people this
is a different way of viewing the responsibilities of trusteeship. It
becomes quite personal and connects personal responsibility to institutional
responsibility. To ask and answer these questions, the individual
has to care.
You cant command
people to care. You cant convince people that, in Greenleafs
words, they should serve "their institutions in a way that builds
a society that is more just and more loving, and with greater creative
opportunities for all of its people." It doesnt work. Those
values and feelings have to come from within. And then resonate with the
institutions values and vision for the future.
To quote Greenleaf
again, "Rather I think of responsibility as beginning with a concern
for self, to receive that inward growth that gives serenity of spirit
without which someone cannot truly say, I am free. One moves,
then, to a response to ones environment, whatever it is, so as to
make a pertinent force of ones concern for ones neighbor
as a member of a family, a work group, a community, a world society. The
outward and inward are seen as parts of the same fabric. Responsible persons
have both....They have wonder in their hearts. This is the way they choose
It takes time and
experience to develop a sense of caring. We care about those things we
believe in, that are important to us. When a candidate is considered for
a position on the board, it is important to know their level of caring
and understanding about the institution.
At one level, have
they, or someone they are close to, had a personal experience with the
institution? Have they been a patient or a student? Have they adopted
a child or received other services? Have they volunteered in some way?
At another, what
do they know about the institution and its mission? Have they financially
supported the institutions annual fund or events? Have they patronized
exhibits at the museum? Have they attended performances of the theater
or symphony? Have they been receiving and reading the annual report
and other publications?
Or, are they even
aware of the organization? Do they have any idea of the constituency served?
Have they read of plans to open the new childrens museum? Do they
know anyone already serving on the board?
to make the assessment before inviting a person to serve. Few people approached
about serving on a board have had enough experience and time to come to
the point where they care enough. Most of that work needs to be done in
advance of their joining the board. Few boards have orientation and continuing
education programs that can elicit that kind of caring in short order.
The selection of
board members ought not be left to a nominating committee that simply
meets a few times before the annual meeting to come up with a list of
names of people who might be willing to agree to serve. That is a sure
road to mediocrity, to a table surrounded by board members who dont
care enough to take responsibility. To silence. Candidates for the board
should be considered and cultivated in the same way as major gift prospects.
(It goes without saying that they are, or should be, major gift donors.)
It takes time to
bring a candidate to the point that he or she is prepared to answer Druckers
questions. There is a strong inclination among board members to short-circuit
this process. The same dread of asking for a gift usually exists in asking
someone to make the kind of commitment needed to serve responsibly on
a board. There is the tendency to minimize the requirements, to overlook
other commitments that will diminish their effectiveness, to ask if they
care enough to assume responsibility.
A successful board
is comprised of leaders. John Gardner in On Leadership lists one
of the characteristics of leadership as the willingness, indeed eagerness,
to accept responsibilities. In fact, he believes, "The taking of
responsibility is at the heart of leadership....This attribute is the
impulse to exercise initiative in social situations, to bear the burden
of making the decision, to step forward when no one else will." Isnt
that the kind of board members institutions need?
Board members ought
to enjoy "the lift of spirit that comes with assuming responsibility,"
in Gardners words. A board comprised of people who care will always
find a willingness among them to take responsibility. Their spirits will
be lively and engaged. They will believe not only that one person can
make a difference, they will embrace the revolutionary changes that a
group of committed people can undertake.
Carver, John, Boards
that Make a Difference, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1990.
F., Managing the Non-Profit Organization, HarperCollins Publishers,
New York, 1990.
Gardner, John W.,
On Leadership, The Free Press, New York, 1990.
K., Servant Leadership, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, 1977.
D. and Associates, The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership
and Management, Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco, 1994.
Michael R. Maude,
Partners In Philanthropy