Greenleaf writes: The trustees’ concern is complicated by the condition that life within the institution is not wholly rational (no more than anywhere else).  …it presents three kinds of challenges which can bring virtual paralysis to the administration if there is none of the effective intervention which trustees are best positioned to make.

First, there is the operational necessity to be both dogmatic and open to change.  …Most institutions that survive over a period of time do so because they have a survival pattern, a dogma that gives a general direction of rightness.  Those who administer and staff the institution become highly competent in operating within that pattern.  Yet unless they are periodically challenged on the adequacy of that pattern, eventually they lose survival ability.  Long before that happens, they probably cease to function at their best. 

Occasionally an inside administrator will detect, in time, the need for a new pattern and effect a change in course.  This, however, is a chance happening; the structure does not favor it.  …the risk of change looms as a greater threat than the risk of failure, even though the old pattern is clearly destined for failure…

 The trustee has a better chance than the administrator to be open to change.  In fact, this is her or his role – to maintain openness to change.

If an organization is going to thrive over time it might well embrace two challenges.  One challenge is to maintain that which ‘works.’  The other challenge is to ‘experiment.’  The best time to begin to experiment is just prior to the organization reaching its peak.  Organizations tend to experiment when they are in crisis – this experimentation is reactive rather than responsive.  One popular mantra that is repeated over and over at peak times when ‘experimentation’ is presented is the ‘If it isn’t broken don’t fix it!’ mantra.  Many times the ‘old guard’ wants to maintain and the ‘new guard’ wants to experiment.

The challenge is to embrace both with equal time, energy and resources.  Leadership is then required to respond to the conflicts, the confusion, and the chaos that emerges when both challenges are being embraced.  This is the art of leadership.

We live in a culture of ‘we can fix it’ and so organizations are often seduced into going into crisis for they believe (a deep tacit assumption they hold) that they will be able to react to the crisis and fix it.  However, most of the crises are not ‘problems to be fixed’ they are more often than not ‘paradoxes,’ or ‘polarities,’ or ‘dilemmas’ – ‘fixing them’ won’t work for they are not problems.

Few organizational structures support both ‘stability’ and ‘experimentation.’  Young organizations promote ‘experimentation’ and if they survive and thrive then as they ‘age’ they move toward emphasizing ‘stability.’  All living systems (and an organization is a living system) decline after they mature.  It is in their nature for living systems to mature and then to decline.  As in any relationship, it is more health-full and help-full for the relationship to ‘begin to evolve’ before it ‘matures and begins to decline’ (if not evovle, at minimum it must ‘renew’ itself – a commitment to continuous renewal, it seems, is the best response but sadly too many ‘relationships’ are not so committed).  In embracing experimentation organizations are embracing ‘renewal’ – and thus they might not have to end up in crisis.  They might well be rooted in ‘response to’ rather than in ‘reaction to.’

If you so choose the challenges can make you stronger. –Ralph Marston

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Greenleaf writes: Lord Acton’s maxim: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  …Trustees have the obligation to oversee the use of power in order to check its corrupting influence on those to whom it is entrusted, and to assure that those affected by its use are positively helped and are not harmed.  This is a large order.  Few trustee bodies are prepared to act on it. 

 The role of trustees is to hold what approximates power over the institution, using it operationally only in rare emergencies – ideally never.  Trustees delegate the operational use of power to administrators and staffs, but with accountability for its use that is at least as strict as now obtains with the use of property and money.  Furthermore, trustees will insist that the outcome be that people in, and affected by, the institution will grow healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, and more likely to become servants of society.  The only real justification for institutions, beyond a certain efficiency (which, of course does serve), is that people in them grow to greater stature than if they stood alone.  It follows then that people working in institutions will be more productive than they would be as unrelated individuals. 

In essence, this view of the use of power holds that no one, absolutely no one, is to be entrusted with the operational use of power without the close oversight of fully functioning trustees.

Let us begin with Greenleaf’s last sentence.  How many trustee bodies provide the ‘close oversight’ Greenleaf advises?  My experience (direct and indirect) is that few trustee bodies are willing invest the time and energy that ‘close oversight’ requires.  Not-for-profit trustee bodies are particularly resistant to providing ‘close oversight.’  A common refrain I hear from these trustees is: ‘We are only volunteers and we are only willing to donate so much of our time to the institution’ (many boards won’t even commit the time needed for comprehensive strategic planning).  Why is this?

I surmise that part of the resistance comes from their own lives.  Many (too many?) of the individuals who come together as trustees are themselves executives and they, themselves, resist ‘close oversight.’  Personally, I have experienced that the most resistance to providing the ‘close oversight’ that Greenleaf advises comes from trustees who are executives (whether in for-profit or not-for-profit organizations).

Furthermore, how many trustee bodies ‘insist’ that people in the institution and those served by the institution ‘grow’?  How many trustee bodies believe that ‘the only real justification’ for their institution’s existence is the growth of people?    I have had the privilege of experiencing several institutions (for-profit and not-for-profit) who strove to live into and out of Greenleaf’s challenge.  Each was highly successful (‘Success’ as defined both by their ‘industry’ and by the communities within which they functioned).  I have also known other institutions (for-profit and not-for-profit) that espoused Greenleaf’s idea but were not able to live it out (the reasons for not living it out were many).

In these short paragraphs Greenleaf presents trustee bodies with two major challenges.  If you, gentle reader, are a trustee do you strive to challenge your board to embrace Greenleaf’s challenge?  If ‘yes’ – How is it going?  If ‘no’ – Why not?

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Greenleaf writes: Trustees, administrators, staff, and various outside constituencies all have power. Any one of them may persuade – by articulation or example or both. Having knowledge gives them power. Being persuasive gives them power. Setting a conspicuous example gives them power. They may also overtly compel, if they have authorized sanctions at their disposal; or they may covertly manipulate. Each of them also has power because he or she has unauthorized sanctions available in the form of options to give or withhold effort or support in ways that give him or her some coercive power over the others. The power structure of any institution is a complex network of forces, both seen and unseen. The understanding of its intricacies and close oversight to prevent abuses is a prime trustee obligation.

In my unabridged dictionary the first definition of ‘power’ is: ‘One’s ability to act.’ We all have the ability to act – we have choice. I have amended this definition a bit; my definition of ‘power’ is: ‘One’s ability to act rooted in moral reflection’ [I have a longer definition but this will suffice for now].

If I am going to be response-able, responsible and accountable then it seems to me that ‘moral reflection’ prior to my acting and after I have acted would serve me (and others) well. Greenleaf notes that we all have the power to ‘persuade’ (persuade = using logic and reason to convince the other). Each of us also has ‘influential power.’ We influence others via questions. The questions are rooted in the belief that the other has insight and wisdom that questions can tap into and call forth. Greenleaf also notes that we ‘persuade’ – and I would add ‘influence’ – via our example. Too often I forget this; I don’t think I am alone in this ‘forgetting.’

Not all of us have the leverage that enables us to coerce others nor do we all have the ability to manipulate others. However, as Greenleaf notes, each of us has a ‘negative power’ – we can subvert, we can undermine, we can withhold support or services, and we can disrupt in many ways. My hunch is that each of us has experienced this type of ‘power’ and my hunch is that each of us has at some time in our lives exercised this type of power. We also have the power of influence, via our questions and our behavior (think: What our behavior ‘models’ for others).

Finally, Greenleaf notes that every institution develops its own ‘power structure’ – ‘a complex network of forces, both seen and unseen.’ Again, I have a sense that each of us has experienced this ‘complex network’ (think ‘Family’ for example). Once again – as he has in many of his writings – Greenleaf says that a primary task, in this case for Trustees, is to first ‘understand’ this ‘network of forces.’ Anyone who has attempted to do so knows the challenge involved in doing so. THEN, ‘close oversight’ in order to ‘prevent abuses’ is required. These two charges, understanding and close oversight, are ‘prime obligations’ for Trustees.

How many Trustees – individually and collectively – actually embrace these two obligations? How many actually view them as ‘primary obligations’? How many leaders, followers and organizations embrace these two obligations?

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Greenleaf writes: A third limitation is that trustees customarily accept, somewhat uncritically, data supplied by internal officers and take no steps to equip themselves to be critical.  They restrict themselves to affirming goals that are set by administrators… trustees largely confine themselves to reviewing performance through administrators’ reports on their own work, with little independent data available to them except what they sense intuitively or gather from the ‘grapevine.’  When there are adverse conditions, sometimes trustees are the last to know – and consequently they may rest comfortably with the illusion that the administration of the institution is functioning much better than may actually be the case.

I have had the privilege – mostly – of serving on five boards.  Each one functioned much as Greenleaf describes above.  On one occasion, because we had not devised a system for gathering certain information, the organization was harmed, the owners suffered great financial loss as well as loss of ‘face’ with those the organization served.  For several years prior to the implosion a few of us would request that we devise a way of gathering the information separate from the ‘reports’ of the CEO.  The CEO and his supporters on the board reframed our request as a lack of trust (in them and in the CEO).  The CEO ended up in prison and the organization disintegrated.

Trustees need to be clear as to the information that they need and they also need to devise a system for gathering this information.  Both of these are challenges that not many boards are willing to embrace.

Regarding ‘succession’ as the fourth limitation, Greenleaf continues: …an adequate successor may not be groomed… Only trustees can have the detachment and the interest necessary for the grooming and the choosing of strong executive leadership.

Even excellent chief administrators too often ‘seek to hire down.’  I don’t believe that this is done ‘consciously.’  I do believe that it is a challenge for a designated leader to ‘hire up’ – to support the hiring of a person who has more gifts, talents, abilities and capacities than he/she possesses.  I am thinking of three organizations that I know well where the boards took the recommendation of the President/CEO and ended up ‘hiring down’ – and it took each board of directors a number of years before they were able to ‘fess up, bite the bullet and rectify the error.’  Each organization paid a price that they did not have to pay.

‘Trustees are the last to know.’  Sadly, this occurs too often.  A major reason this continues to occur is because there is a system in place that does not provide the trustees with the information they need.  This inadequate system continues to be supported by the trustees.  This support continues not because the trustees are ‘bad people’ but because they do not have the ‘right stuff’ (think: ‘information,’ ‘commitment’ and ‘courage’) to become educated/informed and then to make the necessary changes to the system.  Sadly, too often, ‘Directors’ forget that they are ‘Trustees’ and are, by their very role, called to ‘hold in trust’ the Organization for ALL stakeholders.

Seek first to understand. –Robert K. Greenleaf


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Greenleaf writes: The principal limitation of the conventional trustee role is the common assumption by trustees that internal officers and staff, left largely on their own and structured as they usually are, will see to it that the institution performs as it should, that is, close to what is reasonable and possible with its resources.

You might remember, gentle reader, that I began to work directly with boards in 1984; since then I have experienced (both as a trustee and as a thought-partner to trustees) that the ‘common assumption’ Greenleaf notes above continues to manifest itself.  Trustees have difficulty engaging in a ‘board evaluation process,’ and so it makes sense to me that they would also have difficulty engaging in an overall ‘organizational evaluation process.’  Because of this ‘tendency’ trustees are more likely to accept the ‘evaluation’ by the senior administrators that ‘all is well.’

Even if ‘all is well’ there is Greenleaf’s second question: Is the organization performing at a level that is ‘reasonable and possible with its resources’?  Is the organization using all of the ‘resources fully and wisely’?  Given the trustees lack of ‘first-hand knowledge’ how will they be able to know?  It is also crucial to remember that the ‘organization as a whole’ consists of the board and the institution – both need to be part of the evaluation process.  To complicate matters: Who defines what is ‘reasonable and possible’?  Once ‘reasonable and possible’ are defined then, how do you measure what was defined – and who does the ‘measuring’?

This leads into Greenleaf’s second limitation; Greenleaf writes: A second limitation grows out of an aspect of human nature.  Few of us, regardless of how able, have the ability to perform consistently at a high level of excellence, to set the goals for our own performance, and to judge our own performance objectively. 

Given this, it is not reasonable to expect the board itself, nor the senior administrators, to self-evaluate their own performance.  Being good, well-intentioned people is not enough.  Few trustees and few senior administrators engage ‘outsiders’ to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the board and of the senior administrators.  I have known boards that had never engaged in a board evaluation and I have met senior administrators that had never engaged in an evaluation process.

In the mid-90s I helped design and facilitate the evaluation process for a college president – he had never experienced a comprehensive evaluation (actually, he had never experienced a formal evaluation as President). After the evaluation had been completed the board asked for his resignation.  The board was, to put it mildly, stunned by the results of the evaluation – so was the President.  However, members of the college community (faculty and students) and members of the local community were not stunned at all.  There was a huge disconnect between the board, the President and others – this was identified via a comprehensive evaluation process.  The board had the courage to learn and then to act as trustees.


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Greenleaf writes: ‘…the trustees of any institution need leadership by an able and dedicated chairman who will invest the time and acquire the skills needed to assure a fully functioning trustee group.’

How many boards of trustees define the ‘skills, abilities and capacities’ their ‘Chair’ needs in order to ‘assure a fully functioning trustee group’?  Since I became involved with boards  — as a member or as a thought-partner – I have never experienced a board engaging in such a definition (although I have experienced many boards and I have read about many others I certainly have not experienced ALL of them so there might well be boards that engage in such a process).  On two occasions I have participated in a ‘board chair’ gathering – in each experience more than 100 board chairs participated.  None of the boards took the time to define the skill, abilities and capacities needed by a – or their – board chair.  More than 90% indicated that the board chair was ‘chosen’ via seniority.  A person ‘paid’ his or her dues and then became the board chair.  I have a sense that many boards choose their board chair based upon seniority – thus, there are Board Chairs who are not very capable.

If a board is going to define the skills, abilities and capacities it needs in their board chair they must first define the ingredients that help make up a ‘fully functioning board.’  For example, is the board a ‘governance board’ or an ‘operational board’ or a combination of both?  What does the board ‘hold in trust’ and ‘for whom’?  How does a board know if it is a ‘fully functioning board’?  Does the board function as a council of equals or is there an ‘executive group’ that makes the decisions (and the other members sign off on the decisions made)?  Is the board ‘run’ by the organization’s Executive Director?  If so, what is the role of the board chair (to confuse things, sometimes the board chair and E.D. are the same person)?

So, depending upon how a board’s role is defined it is easier to define the role of the board chair and then to emerge the skills, abilities and capacities that a board chair will need to possess.

I have noticed that ‘fully functioning boards’ are blessed with board chairs who possess and use certain skills, abilities and capacities.  These board chairs are ‘trust builders,’ ‘trust maintainers’ and ‘trust re-builders.’  They are also trusted by their fellow trustees.  They are superb facilitators.  They are gifted when it comes to helping the board reach a consensus.  They are able to hold divergent views and help the trustees see the value(s) contained in each view.  They listen, first in order to understand.  They inquire more than advocate.  They invite and honor all voices – they especially invite and honor the skeptical and critical voices.  They demonstrate that they are open to learning about their own ‘style’ via the good critical thinking of the other trustees.  They are also open to – and inviting of – the critical thinking of the organization’s chief administrator.

Effective Board Chairs – as I am describing them – lead by listening.  They lead by being searchers and seekers. When they do speak, they seek to improve on the silence.  Simply stated: they lead by modeling discipline, discernment, trust, openness, and flexibility (there are more characteristics but these will suffice for now).


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Greenleaf writes: A basic conceptual flaw in the conventional wisdom of institutional structures is the inadequacy of provisions for trustees to be a functioning part of the institution’s leadership.  The role of administrators, as it is commonly established, does not provide for adequate trustee functions.  Trustees, for their part, have not seen fit to question the assumptions which administrators make and to assert the affirmative and determining role for themselves which is required both by their legal obligations and by the socio-ethical burden of public trust which they carry. 

 …administration was seen as a wholly sufficient process long before there were trustees.

…much of the notion of absoluteness and self-sufficiency of administrators survives today in the accepted concepts of organization. 

 …it is small wonder that administrators have not accepted trustees as an important influence, and that trustees have not seen fit to establish their appropriate roles.

It seems that for the most part trustees (i.e. Boards of Directors) do seek to embrace their ‘legal obligations.’  One motivation for doing so is ‘fear’ – fear of being sued.  They strive, therefore, to behave ethically (ethical in this sense has to do with following the law).  On the other hand, trustees too often ‘fail’ in relation to the ‘socio-ethical burden’ (i.e. the ‘moral burden’) of public trust.  In accepting to serve as a trustee one accepts this moral burden; Trustees – individually and collectively –  hold in trust for others.

Greenleaf believes that a ‘moral burden’ trustees’ carry involves questioning the assumptions lived by/out.  Greenleaf clearly states that refusing to examine the assumptions one lives by is immoral [Socrates held the same belief and gave it a twist: He believed that the unexamined life is not worth living].  Trustees, then, behave immorally when they refuse to examine the assumptions that they, individually and collectively, live by and that, individually and collectively, the administrators live by, and that the organization lives by.  There are several important steps in this process.

The first step is to ‘uncover’ the assumptions.  This step alone can be quite challenging.  Each trustee holds assumptions, the trustees as a collective hold assumptions, each administrator (senior level, let us say) holds assumptions, the senior administrative team holds assumptions, and the organization as a whole holds assumptions.  These various assumptions complement, affirm, or conflict with one another.

Once the assumptions are uncovered then the question of whether they are needed and/or whether they are ‘helpful’ must be engaged.  What are the needs that are being served by these assumptions?  Which assumptions must I/We let go of?  What do we replace them with?  I have never known, nor heard of, a board of trustees that engaged in this process [since I do not know nor have I heard about every board such a board might well exist].  As far as I know this process has never been a priority for boards, administrators or organizations.

Is Greenleaf correct?  How do we know?  Our individual and collective assumptions powerfully determine what we choose to think about, what options we choose, what values and beliefs we integrate, what visions we emerge, and. . .

In short, our assumptions determine many things.  It makes sense, then, that to refuse to examine them is immoral – at minimum potentially immoral.    



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