The challenge of leadership is not a work for the faint of heart. Presidents are acutely aware of the demands, because they are called to lead at the very point where responsibilities overlap - caring for the board, collaborating with senior administrators, and nurturing the faculty.
Balancing these areas is crucial in any presidency, but it's impossible to hold that balance alone. It's only through the collaborative effort of a leadership team that a school can meet its challenges and fulfill its mission.
How can the board and president work together to help an institution thrive? Here are nine keys:
1. Vision keeping is shared work.
Together, the board and president are responsible for articulating and realizing the institutional mission. If they hold a common vision, the school can move forward as a unified whole. But if some members of the board do not fully support the vision for the institution as it's articulated in the mission statement and by the president, division will crack the foundation.
In hard times, it's difficult to navigate a steady course toward realizing a common vision, especially when the journey's outcome is unpredictable. Holding steady, however, is essential to realizing desired outcomes.
2. There is no art without structure.
This heading is a quotation from Leonardo da Vinci, but it's true for theological education as well. Limits provide a safe context within which theological educators can create their art. As board and president collaborate to articulate the limits that define the work of the institution, it can be helpful to apply the principal of positive boundary setting: Let your "no" reflect your prior "yes." Every institution says "no" more often than "yes," but as long as the board is clear about the school's primary commitments, its "no" can be an affirmation of the school's key work.
3. Competence cannot simply be assumed.
Of course board members and presidents must have the competence to do the job they have been appointed to do, but unfortunately, not every board member or president has that capacity. Only when both parties (the president and the board as a body) have the ability to accomplish what they have been charged to do can the board-president leadership team work effectively.
4. Accountability doesn't require blame.
The president is responsible to the board, but this doesn't mean that the board should step into the president's work - a clear differentiation of responsibilities is crucial to any healthy system. The principle of "nonblaming accountability" helps the president and board own their actions without being vilified for their inevitable human mistakes. Blame has no place in an effective leadership team, and an environment that fosters trust allows for both growth and mercy.
5. Assessing the president and the school as a system is a key board function.
The capacity to identify trouble spots is strengthened when the board participates in regular systemic analysis - stepping back from everyday life and ongoing strategic planning to look at how the system is functioning and why. Professional evaluation should include interviews with employees as well as external stakeholders like donors and church officials. Two words of warning: (1) The board's evaluation of the president should take place through a transparent process in which the president is a full participant. Otherwise, triangular communication may disable the president's effectiveness. (2) If employees and other stakeholders are consulted, their feedback must be taken seriously, or morale will be undermined.
6. Both the president and board should work to create a culture of fairness.
A well-functioning board ensures that the president is treated in a way that is consistent with policies and contracts. In turn, the board should verify that the president is also applying the school's policies in a consistent manner. An institution with a culture of fairness has a better chance of continuing to fulfill its mission in times of crisis, since people who are treated fairly will pull together.
7. The president's job is lonely, so the president's self-care is an institutional priority.
The board member's role is not to be the president's friend, but the board should encourage the president to practice the three S's of self-care:
■ Suffering. For a president, pain is inevitable, but suffering is not. Remembering that conflict and disappointment are normal enables a president to breathe more easily during traumas and reduces suffering.
■ Solitude. The hectic pace of the president's office makes it difficult to take time apart, but a board that wants a president to thrive will insist. Rest, recreation, and time alone with God are, in the end, the only ways that a leader can marshal the internal resources sufficient to accomplish demanding work.
■ Support systems. Presidents need regular support systems, which may include spiritual direction, professional or personal counselling, or help for the president's family. The board should be sure to pay attention to details like medical benefits, housing, compensation packages, children's education, and family vacations. A president who cannot provide for his or her family is crippled, and even presidents without spouses or children may have parents, extended families, or religious communities requiring attention.
8. A culture of gratitude is an indicator of systemic health.
Gratitude is not just appreciation for good effort - it is a theological discipline. When Paul wrote, "Rejoice always . . . give thanks in all things" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), he was speaking to us. When Julian of Norwich wrote, "All manner of things shall be well," she was speaking to us. It is a theological commitment to trust that God is in all things and that we have already been given everything we need for our present and future.
9. Our commitment to the shared work of theological education means that we need to show up - physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
There are days when neither the president nor the board is clear about how the work they share should proceed, but simply showing up is much of the work. Practicing an engaged presence means tending to what is unfolding in ourselves and all around us. It requires regular meetings and attention to relationships. A board and president that model this can build a context for healthy community.
A system can rise only to the level of health found in its leadership. In the end, perhaps it is courage that most distinguishes effective leadership - the courage to move through the inevitable cycles of life and death that any institution undergoes. This is what meaningful cooperation between the board and the president can achieve: a partnership capable of presiding over, under, and through the ongoing renewal of an institution. Embracing an ethic of shared leadership charts the route for that journey.