When board members interview presidential candidates, they often inquire about leadership style. “Please describe how you exercise leadership,” they say, and the candidate describes a perfect mix of future-embracing vision and nurturing collaboration.
But really, there’s no right or wrong answer, because leadership is highly contextual. Within the candidate’s answer, the board discovers how a presidential candidate has reflected on the role and function of leadership, on the skills and values that he or she is bringing to the table, and on the candidate’s own history.
This same question can also be fruitful for boards. As a part of a board development session, your board might reflect from time to time on this: “How would we describe our leadership in this institution to people outside this room — to faculty, administrators, donors, and church leaders?”
Within my own experience, I’ve seen at least three styles of board leadership, but you might suggest others. Using these three models as a guide for discussion, how would you describe your board’s leadership?
Leaders’ board. In this model, the chief leadership comes from certain board members who possess the special skills, charisma, knowledge, experience, or financial capacity to move the school forward. This kind of leadership often leans heavily on particular experiences or significant assets that a few gifted leaders bring to the board and school. Longevity of service and strong reputation add to these board leaders’ influence, often elevating them to both official and unofficial positions of leadership among board colleagues. They are recognized by everyone — or almost everyone — as essential to the board’s leadership. These leaders move the agenda forward.
Presidential board. In these boards, the principal leader is the president. This doesn’t require that the board be a rubber stamp, but it does assume that board members recognize the president’s acuity and experience. The presidential board supports, enhances, and protects the president, who persuasively articulates the school’s vision and mission in ways that bring cohesion and movement to the whole school.
Board’s board. These boards are mature, filled with seasoned members. They have developed well-established policies, procedures, and processes that have weathered the test of time. Committees run professionally with experienced chairs at the helm. Trust abounds as various permanent and ad hoc committees carry out their responsibilities like clockwork. The board works collaboratively with the president, not in competition. Nevertheless, at critical moments, the board’s leadership emerges as primary.
So what is your board’s leadership style?
There is no right answer here. Each of these models of board leadership has both strengths and weaknesses, and many seminaries experience more than one style of leadership over time. Different seasons require different kinds of leadership from a board.
Self-reflection is the key. Here are some questions that might be discussed in a board session on leadership:
In the life of our school, what season are we in?
What leadership gifts are already present on this board?
Given the contextual challenges and opportunities that we are facing now, what kind of leadership from the board is needed at this time? What kind of leadership will we need in the future?
What leadership gifts are we lacking right now?
Reflecting on your board’s leadership style is the first step toward understanding how you can build board competencies and promote the effectiveness of the president’s leadership team. And if the board can articulate its own vision for leadership, it can be a model to others — students, graduates, and indeed the whole church.