Recently I had a brief conversation with a person who is the Chairperson of a large non-for-profit organization. A few hours later I began to think about what Greenleaf offered us when he wrote about trustees and about organizations. I opened Greenleaf’s essay, ‘The Institution as Servant’ and my eyes were drawn to the following. I have decided to type out the entire paragraph and then offer a few reflective comments. Greenleaf writes:
The concept of trustee is used here for members of the governing boards of both profit and not-for-profit large institutions. It includes the accepted sense of fiduciary trust which, in the absence of malfeasance or threatened collapse of the institution, is usually a somewhat passive role. The trustee role advocated here goes far beyond this limited view and implies a dynamic obligation, an insistent motivating force originating with trustees that obliges the institution to move toward distinction as servant. By this is meant that an institution makes a contribution, at least proportional to its opportunity, toward building a society that is more just and more loving, one that offers greater opportunities to its people.
I first began to work with boards of directors/trustees in 1984; this was also the first year that I served on a board. I found that the boards that I served on and the boards I was working with were, as Greenleaf noted, too passive. Even today, 34 years later, too many boards continue to be passive. What does this mean?
First, too many boards have too many members. The numbers alone contribute to board passivity. Because of the number of members these boards delegate the ‘work’ to committees and then, again because of the numbers, they end up rubber-stamping the committee’s work. This is a major form of board passivity.
Is there an ‘ideal’ number? I believe so. The board needs to have enough members so that if 2-3 members are not able to attend a board meeting that there will still be a quorum. The board needs to be have enough members so that in-depth conversations can be held during a board meeting. Consider that the ideal number is ‘nine.’ I consulted with a board that was stuck and it had 38 members. One of the boards I served on had 21 members. Both were too passive (an understatement to be sure).
Second, too many boards are actually ‘run’ by the organization’s CEO/President. In fact, too many of these boards are made up of members chosen by the CEO/President. Too often the board becomes loyal to the CEO/President and does not fulfill its obligation of ‘holding in trust’ for ALL stakeholders. Again, the board tends to put a rubber stamp on what the CEO/President wants. Furthermore, the board finds it difficult, if not impossible to ‘hold the CEO/President ‘accountable.’ One board I worked with had never in more than ten years evaluated the CEO.
As is his wont, Greenleaf ups the ante again and again. He ups the ante the first time by writing that a major charge of trustees is to oblige the institution to move toward distinction as servant. I have had the privilege of working with two boards that embraced this obligation and I had the privilege of serving on two other boards that embraced this obligation.
Greenleaf then ups the ante again when he writes that a board is charged with helping the institution serve in such a manner that one major outcome is that a more just and loving society will emerge. Talk about a big dream.
But Greenleaf is not finished upping the ante. He ups it one more time (in this paragraph). The trustees are to insure that the institution offers greater opportunities to its people.
‘Opportunities’ to be or to do what? This question leads us back to Greenleaf’s ‘Best Test’ for the servant (in this case the ‘servant’ is comprised of the trustees, the employees, and the institution as a living entity). Greenleaf’s opening question is enough, given our limited space this morning. Greenleaf writes: Do those served grow as persons?