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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