Governance is never simple. No matter how clear the relevant legal mandate, policy, or decision-making precedent, there's always a new wrinkle - even a lurking danger. At the recent Biennial Meeting of the Association of Theological Schools in Atlanta, Dorcas Gordon and I tried to capture that reality with the phrase "The Governance Puzzle," which was the title of our workshop for presidents.
Leading the governance process is like working a crossword puzzle, Dorcas explained- but not just any crossword puzzle. As principal of Knox College, the Presbyterian theological school at the University of Toronto, she noted that working at governance is like working "North of 49," the distinctly Canadian crossword printed Saturdays in the Toronto Star.
At the workshop, Dorcas pressed the imagery: As she tries her hand at the puzzle and sips her morning coffee, Dorcas moves down and across simultaneously. She uses her intuition, her education, and her knowledge of local culture and institutions. She remembers past solutions, and she sometimes even asks for help. Similarly, governance at Knox College requires multiple angles and points of entry - the lenses of church, school, faculty, board, and students can be applied to each issue. Understanding the legitimate interests of everyone with a stake in the outcome is essential to governance.
Intuition can be a surprising resource, and both parish ministry and motherhood have sharpened her perceptions. But Dorcas notes that intuition can mislead, and frequently a solution only comes with strategic new information. Additionally, she emphasizes that governance is always local. Just as the "North of 49" puzzle is filled with allusions to Canadian culture, so historical and cultural elements always characterize the governance puzzle. Without the capacity to make sense of the local clues, a president will quickly reach a dead end.
Other presidents at the workshop offered additional witty and insightful images. One president said she now feels like a juggler in a three-ring circus, which is an improvement on her experience as a new president. Back then, she felt more like the sorcerer's apprentice in Disney's Fantasia, with a hat and robe that were too big and a wand that only multiplied problems.
Another president noted that the puzzle image really requires a third dimension. He said that working governance is more like trying to solve Rubik's Cube, in which one move creates effects on more than one plane. No, said another president - governance is really a "postmodern Rubik's Cube" with no solution at all!
The ripples of humor and selfknowledge conveyed through these images reminded me once again that grappling with the puzzle of governance, more than any other activity, forces presidents to new understandings of themselves and their leadership. In fact, how a president handles governance often determines the success or failure of a presidency.
Even more than new presidents expect, governance is dangerous and complicated, encompassing a messy tangle of relationships that can never be entirely controlled. Presidents who do well are attuned to relationships that need tending. In pursuing their plans, they quickly address corners of festering discontent, but at the same time, they engage resourceful advocates.
The governance puzzle is no solitary diversion. Presidents count on other key leaders, especially their leadership team and board officers, to help them nurture productive relationships with the board and faculty, and in many places also with church officials, university administrators, and donors.
In this new season, as we at In Trust labor and pray with you, we wish you mindful governance and all the teamwork required to pursue your educational mission productively.