The Accidental Board President

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 9th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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Although the position of board president is one of the most critical ones in a nonprofit, there is often little thought and intentionality put into the process of filling the position.   I literally have seen board presidents elected because they left the room at the wrong time.  Many of us have seen people elected as board president because they were the only ones whose arms could be twisted to take the job.  Too many of us have seen the position filled by the person “next in line,” and, worse, too many believe that is the right way to fill this position.  The selection of the board president should be as thoughtful and as intentional a process as the hiring of an executive director.

To be honest, the job of board president is not glamorous, nor is it, as many believe, terribly prestigious, unless the organization itself is prestigious.  Still, I have had board presidents tell me it was extremely important to them personally to hold the title of president.  Like many exceedingly important positions, it is a rather thankless position, bringing with it much more work and responsibilities than that of other board members, with no special privileges.  Those who think otherwise absolutely never should be a board president.

Why is this position so pivotal?  It is the leader of the leaders (the board), and the closest partner in that very delicate relationship between the board and the executive director.  An inability to fulfill both of those roles, and to do each well, can skewer an organization, at best restraining it in its tracks, and at worst, moving it backwards.  But a person who can play both of these roles strengthens the leadership of the executive director and gets the best from both the collective board and individual board members.

Over the decades, I’ve had the privilege of working with, and getting to know, some stellar board presidents. They have cemented for me the characteristics of an exemplary board president.  While not an exhaustive list, it is a great place for any board to start the conversation about what (not who) does it need—as opposed to what can it get—in the position of board president.

  • First and foremost, a great board president understands that the position isn’t about him/her, but about the mission of the organization. Too often, I have heard board presidents themselves, other board members, even executive directors, say things like, “The strategic priorities are whatever are of interest to the board president,” or “Our meetings focus on whatever is of interest to/the strengths of the board president” or many variations on this theme is that it is all about the board president and not about the mission of the organization.  If anything, a great board president is a pure Servant Leader or Level 5 Leader, not an egomaniac.
  • Related, a great board president practices one of Peter Drucker’s commandments to all leaders: know thyself.  Sometimes, I think that too many board presidents don’t realize/understand that they are, indeed, leading:  they are leading a board and they are leading an organization; they think and worry only about themselves, as noted above.  But every board president is a leader, and understanding one’s own strengths and weaknesses, in general and as they feed into the ability to be a leader, is just as essential to a successful board president as it is to a successful Fortune 500  What a great leader then does is work with her/his own strengths and surrounds her/himself with others to fill the weaknesses.
  • A great board president understands the concept of a partnership, knows what it means to be a real partner; s/he recognizes that for the organization to be successful, s/he must work in direct partnership with the executive director and encourage the partnership between the full board and the executive director. While it is absolutely true that the board is the boss of the executive director, a board president who constantly plays the boss card, constantly reminds everyone and anyone that s/he is board president, is not someone who appreciates the delicacy of this partnership of slight unequals, and the results that can happen when that partnership is respected and cultivated.
  • While I always shy away from ranking lists like this, as so many of these characteristics could be seen as interwoven and variations on a theme, there is part of me that wants to put this next attribute at the top of the list, and call it such. The best board presidents that I have ever met are thoughtful, reflective, open to learning—about themselves as board president, about the board and its performance, about supporting and strengthening the executive director, about the organization as a whole, as well as its individual pieces.  They are constantly thinking about how this or that could be better, and how they could make this or that be better.  This isn’t a responsibility that they turn off and turn on before the next board meeting.  No, these great board presidents live with this responsibility day in and day out, constantly thinking about the challenge they have accepted:  how to make the board and organization better by the time they leave office.  They are dedicated and freely give the time and attention to do this job to the best of their abilities.
  • Lastly, a great board president is an ace facilitator: facilitator of meetings, of relationships, of ideas, of problem solving.  What too few board presidents realize when they accept the position is that their job at board meetings isn’t to dominate and control the conversation; their job is to facilitate the conversation, to tap into all of the great minds and perspectives sitting around the board table so that the board’s collective decision making responsibility can be fully informed and considered.  Their job is to facilitate relationships so that they can get the best out of committees, committee chairs, the executive director, and funders.

Like so many things, being a high performing board president is not a destination, but a journey.  The great ones are continually inspired to travel that road.  It is up to boards to determine who those great leaders are amongst them.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.