Greenleaf writes: It is a major trustee role to build legitimacy by being sensitive to critical thinking from all quarters and helping to interpret the meaning of it to the internal leadership and administration…

Legitimacy begins with trust. No matter what the competence or the intentions, if trust is lacking, nothing happens…

The only sound basis for trust is for people to have the solid experience of being ‘served’ by 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. And it is worth the cost of some chaos and disruption if enough people…will start building institutions that generate a high level of trust through a quality of service that is exceptional by all previous standards.

To begin with, Greenleaf presents us with three challenges: ‘a major trustee role is to build legitimacy.’ It has been my thinking for many years (since 1984 anyway) that any organization can benefit from a strong board of trustees. Defining the trustee role has always been, and continues to be, a challenge. Historically trustees are entrusted with ‘building legitimacy’ – this is nothing new. One aspect that continues to be counter-cultural is Greenleaf’s next statement: ‘to build legitimacy by being sensitive to critical thinking from all quarters AND to help interpret its meaning to those inside of the organization.’

So the second challenge is to ‘define critical thinking’ (it is not, by the by, criticism as we love to practice it) and then to invite the critical thinking of others into the board room (again, my experience is that trustees do not seek out and invite external critical thinkers to bring their voices); the more diverse the critical thinking the more the board will benefit (I am thinking of one board that would invite competitors, customers, ‘neighbors,’ staff, ‘friends of the organization’ and critics of the organization to bring their voices to the board). The third challenge requires the board to ‘interpret the meaning’ of the critical thinking to those inside of the organization. Anyone who has attempted to do this knows how challenging this is.

Greenleaf reminds us that a (if not ‘the’) major tap root to ‘legitimacy’ is ‘trust’ (hence the name ‘Trustees’). Trustees are not only ‘entrusted with’ the organization, they are to be builders (and when necessary the re-builders) of trust. ‘Competence’ without trust becomes meaningless. For more than forty years every organization that I have been involved with has had ‘trust issues.’ In organizational audits, trust issues always seems to make the top three.

Greenleaf suggests that a ‘sound basis for trust’ is the result of people experiencing being ‘served.’ He, as is his wont, ups the ante by stating that the organization builds trust by helping society become ‘more just and more loving’ – this is accomplished partly as the organization provides ‘creative opportunities’ for ALL of its people. This type of trust-building entails the board and the organization embracing some ‘chaos and disruption.’ This is a challenge for the administrators, managers and supervisors for they are charged with maintaining stability, predictability and balance. Hence, the board must support the organizations ‘leaders’ as they champion organizational experimentation, if not transformation.

Trust is also built – and maintained – by ‘a quality of service that is exceptional.’ Being mediocre will not cut it. Folks within the organization are served so that they ‘grow’ and develop and those who are served by the organization also experience service that is exceptional (see Disney for an example).

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