There’s a good reason why in most nonprofit organizations the chairperson and the chief executive are different people. The president’s role is to develop, propose, and argue for an institutional program. The chair’s role is to help the board assess, shape, dream, and (if possible) come to consensus on what the president or other board members lay before the board.

Indeed, Presbyterians and others whose organizations are in the Reformed tradition are to be praised for clinging to the term “moderator” as a title for those who preside over their governance bodies. Moderating, giving each advocate a fair shake, soothing fraying tempers, encouraging the shy trustee to blossom and the brash one to cultivate restraint, seeking broadly agreeable compromises, these are typical tasks of the skilled and successful chair.

The concept of chairing dates to medieval times when opportunities to sit down on anything other than benches, windowsills, and the ground were few and far between, and only monarchs and bishops and such like had personal sitting places. Indeed, in those days the seat of government was literally where the king reposed his royal rump. When somewhat later the title of chairman emerged, he was simply the guy who had one.

The idea, or at least the ideal, that the person in the chair is the servant of the governance group came along almost concurrently. Presiding officers are human beings and consequently have points of view; nonetheless virtually all systems of parliamentary procedure forbid the advocacy of these views from the chair. When the presider feels impelled to argue for this or against that, he or she is duty-bound to surrender the chair temporarily to someone else.

Unfolding through the pages of this issue of In Trust are glimpses of the lives and leadership styles of a number of theological school board chairs. As persons they differ quite considerably from one another, but few if any display any significant tendency to force their ideas on others. On the contrary, almost all seem to value the opportunity to listen.

Robert Greenleaf, the gentle Quaker who spent much of the last twenty-five years of his life consulting with and counseling seminary presidents and board chairs, thought a key role of the chairperson was to nurture the spirit of the institution, its chief executive, and its board.

“‘What do I do?’ the conscientious chairperson may ask,” wrote Greenleaf in one of his essays. And went on: “The only unequivocal answer I know to that question is one word: ‘Care.’”

Greenleaf then set down a number of elaborations, focused mainly on taking care of the executive. The roster is too long to reproduce here in full, but some key counsels are:

  • Seek no recognition or reward for yourself, but get satisfaction from seeing the executive perform well and receive recognition for it.
  • Do a lot of listening, and have a basis for knowing whether the nurturing effort is constructive, neutral, or hurtful.
  • Watch the institutional performance closely, and be able to counsel the executive constructively on how the institution might do better.
  • Be available to talk to the executive about problems that arise; the executive’s role can be a lonely one.
  • Meditate on one’s effort, and be open to inspiration about how best to relate to the executive.

Greenleaf’s effort to inspire and energize board chairs was part of a larger conviction and bold hypothesis, namely that governing boards were the agencies that could and would lead institutions of every kind to greatness. And he had a particular hope for the governing boards of theological schools. He thought they had a chance and a calling to change the world.

In an essay titled “Toward a Gentle Revolution,” Greenleaf wrote:

I have a vision of a nation, while far from perfect, that can move steadily and in prudent steps toward a new dream of what it can become, one institution at a time. The prime leaders for this new movement may be chairpersons of trustees, not superpeople, but good, solid, ethical folk who have a new vision of their roles and the role of the institutions in their care, and the skills and knowledge of processes that enable them to lead their fellow trustees toward achieving stronger and more serving institutions.

Such thinking is a stretch for trustees who sit around wondering if they can keep open the doors of their fragile institutions. But ideas are powerful, and very small groups of people can bring about great changes for good (and, alas, also for ill). Does Greenleaf have a message for you?

You can pursue the ideas of Robert Greenleaf further in his Seeker and Servant: Reflections on Religious Leadership, which contains this essay and the related “The Trustee Chairperson: Nurturer of the Human Spirit.”

Read more articles on the role of the board chair:

  • A Match Made in Heaven? How a President and Chair Helped Shape a School (New Year 2000)
  • Coping, Caring, Carrying on a Good Work: Eight Views from the Head of the Table (New Year 2000)
  • Pull Up Your Chair: A Concise Guide to Leading a Board into Creative Community (Autumn 2001)
  • State of the Communion: A New Chair Connects with Board Members (Autumn 2001)
  • The View from a Different Chair (Autumn 2001)
  • Top Topics
    Roles & Responsibilities
    Board Essentials

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