Leadership is a serious meddling in other people’s lives. –Max De Pree

Greenleaf writes: Trustees can become the persons who are trusted partly because they are seen as being unusually sensitive to the corrupting influences of power and who are an effective bulwark against the abuses of power that are so common today.  They would be the people, among all others, who would insist that power be used to serve and not to hurt.

Trustees, then, quite apart from their governing role in the specific institutions they oversee, would as individual citizens, become a conspicuous leaven in a society that is much too disposed to violence and in which a crippling low level of trust prevails.  Where trust is required, they would be the first ones turned to because they are the ones most likely to be trusted – trusted to serve and not to hurt.

It seems to me that many trustees ‘see’ and ‘know about’ the ‘corrupting influences of power.’  And as we know, ‘seeing’ and ‘having knowledge’ does not change anything.  How many trustees are actually ‘bulwarks against the abuses of power’?  How many trustees take advantage of their position as a trustee and actually abuse their power?  Greenleaf noted in 1970 – when he wrote this essay – that abuses of power were ‘common today.’  Do those who are entrusted with power today demonstrate more or less abuse of their power?  Law Enforcement comes to my mind this morning. 

How many trustees today ‘insist’ that ‘power be used to serve’?  Who, or what, are trustees choosing to serve?  This, it seems to me, is the question.  As the great poet Maya Angelou noted: ‘We all must be serving someone or something.’  

What is the result of our serving?  Do those served grow as person?  In serving how do we cause harm (as imperfect human beings trustees will cause harm); the harm trustees cause is at time unintentional and is at times intentional (as when they determine that in order for the organization to survive some employees will have to be laid off – this is what I call a ‘Harm-Harm Dilemma’). 

Greenleaf challenges trustees when he asks how many of them will ‘become a conspicuous leaven in a society’?  How many trustees do you know, gentle reader, who have indeed become a ‘conspicuous leaven’?   Are we a more violent society than we were when Greenleaf wrote these words in 1970?  On the surface it seems as if we are (sadly, it seems we do accept violence as a norm today).  Do we trust less today than we did in 1970?  My hunch is that we are not as trusting today.  Are trustees more trusted today than they were in 1970 – I am not so sure; I am thinking of Law Enforcement again. 

Do we, today, turn to trustees when we seek out folks who we deem to be trust-worthy?  When we need someone to serve – and not harm – do we turn to trustees?  Who is holding in trust for us? 

Responsible people build, they do not destroy.  They are moved by the heart. –Robert K. Greenleaf

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IF trustees posit a role for themselves. . .-Robert K. Greenleaf

Greenleaf writes: Engaging a coach to help trustees to operate by a process that favors that optimal performance serves to acknowledge that a conscious learning process is accepted, that trustee performance will always fall short of perfection, but that the full obligation of trust calls for a constant striving for perfection.

…The primary aim of the coach is to facilitate consensus – achieving one mind.  The effective trustee group is not merely one that hears all the arguments and then votes.  Rather, it reaches a consensus – a group judgment that will be accepted as superior wisdom.  Without the acceptance of all constituencies that trustee judgment is superior wisdom there is little leadership possible for trustees. 

…There is very little sustained performance at the level of excellence – of any kind anywhere – without continuous coaching.  Since trustees have the obligation to monitor the performance of the institution, and since trustees are the court of last resort, trustees who want to do the best they can will provide for the monitoring of their own work.  And this is how they will learn.

I find Greenleaf’s idea/conclusion quite intriguing: employing a coach is one way that trustees demonstrate that a ‘conscious learning process is accepted.’  I had the privilege of being a ‘coach’ to one board for thirteen years (I called it being a ‘thought-partner’ to the trustees).  Thus far I have never learned of another board that retained a coach on an ongoing basis; certainly not for thirteen years. 

I have known boards who espoused ‘consensus’ and I have known boards that espoused ‘majority rule’ via voting.  Consensus is difficult to achieve for it takes time, energy, and superb facilitation.  Board Chairs generally view themselves as the facilitator when it comes to achieving consensus – too often they are not adept at facilitating.  For some reason boards do not choose either the trustee who is skilled at facilitation or retain a skilled facilitator as they strive to achieve consensus.  As I have experienced trustees who espoused a consensus model I found that they did not understand the concept and/or they did not have the skilled facilitator needed in order to help them achieve consensus. 

Greenleaf’s conclusion that ‘sustained performance’ is not possible ‘without continuous coaching’ is a conclusion that does not seem to be embraced by trustees.  Trustees, I have experienced, do not want their work to be monitored.  Many trustees are executives or presidents or CEOs or Executive Directors and they are not used to having their work ‘monitored’ and so it makes sense to me that as trustees they would not consider retaining a coach in order to have their work monitored (where I have suggested such a role I have been responded to with hearty resistance). 

Greenleaf concludes this piece with: And this is how they will learn.  Since trustees do not retain coaches is the implication that they will not learn (or is it that they will not learn as much as they could)? 

Experience plus Reflection is the learning. –Charles Handy

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Greenleaf writes: If trustees posit a role for themselves that will enable them to be influential in raising the performance of the total institution to the optimal, they confront a difficult problem: how to carry that role ‘as a group.’  It is one thing to carry a trustee role as an individual.  It is quite another to function effectively as a part of a group process. 

…a trustee board will do well to search for a ‘coach’ who will help them learn an appropriate process so that they will become an effective collegial group whose judgment deserves to be respected as superior wisdom in matters which trustees should consider and decide.  Since no group will ever achieve this fully, the coaching process will be continuous.

‘IF’: Greenleaf’s ‘If’ is a huge ‘IF’ for boards – What is the ‘role’ that a board  ability to ‘raise the performance of the total institution to the optimal?’  Who defines ‘optimal’?  Even when a board agrees on the responses to these question they are then faced with a daunting challenge: ‘How to carry that role as a GROUP.’ 

Our culture is rooted in the ‘individual’ and recognizes and rewards ‘individual’ effort; we are not a culture that is rooted in the ‘community’ (or the group or the team).  Most board members have spent their life developing their individual abilities, skills, and talents – they have not spent much time (if any) developing the ability, skill and talent to function well as part of a group [consider: one of the reasons Boards vote rather than seek Greenleaf’s ‘one voice’ via consensus is the consequence of emphasizing the individual over the community/team/board].

Greenleaf experienced many boards for many years and his observation carries more than a little insight into this idea.  His solution involves a board searching for a ‘coach’ to help them learn to function as a ‘group’ – and to function at a high level.  Board members that I have come to know during the past 35 years support the idea that the wisdom of the group is more powerful than the wisdom of the wisest person AND they still have difficulty when it comes to taping into the wisdom of the group. 

A person who is skilled in helping groups ‘think’ together might well be a good ‘coach’ for a board.  Consider that since boards are ‘individuals’ writ large that it will not be easy for a board to learn to learn and think together.  Greenleaf is probably correct when he notes that because of the ‘strength of the individual,’ the coaching process will need to become a continuous process. 

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Greenleaf writes: …trusteeship is a social role that needs to be explicitly conceptualized by each trustee group.  Further, conscientious trustees will accept (1) that it is not sufficient just to understand their role, (2) that how they should carry that role will not necessarily evolve out of experience, and (3) that the trustee role needs to be consciously learned by each board.  Also, some means for assuring sustained high performance is important for trustees…

Trust begins with good motives.  But competence, and a way of sustaining competence, needs to be added to good motives. 

How often do boards explicitly conceptualize their ‘social role’?  How many boards believe they have a ‘social role’ and that it needs to be explicitly conceptualized? 

‘Understanding,’ like ‘knowledge’ is not sufficient enough.  These are the prelude to action for Greenleaf.  A board’s motivation ‘to act’ is rooted in ‘understanding’ and ‘knowledge’.  All three – understanding, knowledge, action – are necessary for trustees if they are going to embrace and live into their charge of holding in trust

Greenleaf also notes that ‘experience’ alone will not determine how the trustees should carry out their role.  Charles Handy gives us some help when he notes that ‘experience plus reflection is the learning.’  A board will more likely discern how they should carry out their role if they take the time to ‘reflect’ upon their ‘experience’ and then ‘learn’ from it.  How many trustees are willing to invest the time and energy that this process requires? 

The ‘trustee role must be learned.’  How many trustees believe they know their role –that is they have little to learn about their role?  Is the trustee role ‘set in stone’ or does it evolve over time (say in response to the growth and development of the organization or in response to the changing world in which the organization resides)?  What is inherent in the trustee role no matter what changes occur or what evolves or what emerges? 

Who defines ‘high performance’?  Once defined, how do trustees ensure that high performance is ‘sustained’?  What does it mean to ‘sustain high performance’ – what does it look like, sound like and feel like?  Who defines ‘sustainability’

‘Good motives’ and ‘Good people’ are not enough.  ‘Competence’ is required.  Who defines ‘being competent’ – what does it look like, sound like and feel like?  How does a board evaluate the competence of each trustee AND the competence of the board as a whole?  Who does the evaluating?  Is it truly possible for a trustee and/or a board to ‘self-evaluate’?   There are many more questions that can be offered to trustees, but these few will have to suffice for today.

Love the questions themselves. –Rilke

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Gentle reader, I refer you to PART I in order to read Greenleaf’s quote; for our purposes this morning I will note the last part of his quote, the part I will comment on today.  Greenleaf wrote: (5) because trustees are not colleagues who may have contending interests, they can function creatively as a group on issues that internal constituencies may not be able to resolve; (6) trustees are better able to have a sense of history, past-present-future, and therefore are better able to hold the institution’s vision and keep it steady, and they may better see the path to survival and long service; (7) trustees can keep the concept of ultimate purpose in sharp focus and hold it up as a guide at times when the insiders are hard pressed to stay afloat from day to day.

How often do trustees actually have ‘contending interests’?  My experience these past forty years is ‘quite often.’  Thus their ability to ‘function creatively’ regarding issues that ‘internal constituencies may not be able to resolve’ is limited.  How often do individual trustees take sides with the organization’s internal contending parties?  How often do trustees fail to speak with ‘one voice’ and instead each trustee brings his/her individual voice to the internal contending parties?  One of the ongoing challenges for boards of trustees is to always ‘speak with one voice.’  For anyone who has ever served on a board that espouses the ‘one voice’ commitment, he/she knows of what I speak. 

How many trustees actually seek to have a real sense of history – ‘past-present-future’?  How many trustees are able to ‘hold’ the organization’s vision – how many actually know the vision?  How many trustees actually ‘see’ the same path the organization is traveling?  When I interview individual trustees I find that there is significant disagreement as to the path they believe the organization is traveling (or should travel).  How many trustees are focused more on the long-term than on the short-term (administrators and managers are to focus primarily on the short-term – the Mission); trustees are charged and entrusted with focusing primarily on the long-term (the Vision).  Administrators and Managers are charged with ‘maintaining’ and Trustees are charged with evolutionary change.  Together they hold the tension that exists between maintaining and evolving-changing.

How many trustees can name the ‘ultimate purpose’ – Why does this organization exist?  What are the needs that exist in the world that this organization addresses?  Trustees might ask: If this organization did not exist would we create it (that is, the needs would demand that we do so)?  When trustees make trustee decisions how often do they hold up the ‘Purpose’ as a major guideline that helps them decide for or against the decision? 

I am thinking of a current board that is seeking to replace a president who is retiring at the end of next year.  They seem to be more interested in hiring a ‘name’ rather than in taking the time to determine the needs the organization has going forward (say looking out 3-5 years) and then finding the best person to help address those needs.  The ‘purpose’ for them seems to be hiring a ‘name’ rather than emerging the organization’s and the ‘world’s needs’ so that the ‘needs’ become the purpose; the hiring of the ‘name’ does not become the purpose.   

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