Better together

Illustration by James Graham

There is so much wisdom in the article, “No CEO Goes it Alone” (Autumn 2023). As a new, female board chair leading with a female president, the discussion of the “double-bind” dilemma in which all women leaders operate resonates. Seek input? You’re weak and uncertain. Act decisively? You’re domineering, not collaborative. Men never face these criticisms. Women should not, either. But they percolate into boardrooms and presidential evaluations anyway. Left unaddressed, as the article shows, they can leave women leaders feeling beleaguered and alone.

The responsibility for change rests first and foremost with the board chair. She sets the agenda for meetings and guides discussions. She has a responsibility as chair to call out the “double-bind” dilemma and to guide the discussion back to issues of substance and effectiveness, away from gendered concepts of leadership “style.” This is hard but essential work: it ensures the president is supported in her leadership gifts, which is (after all) why she was hired to lead the institution in the first place. It also, importantly, sets a tone at the top of the institution, signaling that discrimination or gendered comments are out of bounds.

The board bears its own responsibility to create a climate in which the gifts of all leaders are heard and appreciated. So much scholarship shows that diverse boards are better boards and make better decisions. Having significant and respected female board members (our board of 17 has nine women) fosters an atmosphere in which the president’s gender is not seen as an “issue,” but rather as an attribute. In the (hopefully rare) case where gendered comments are made, having many voices (male and female) trained and ready to redirect the conversation creates and nurtures a healthy climate for discussion, allowing issues to be debated and decided on the merits.

Finally, in a time of turmoil, providing caring support to a president is essential for boards stewarding the institution’s resources. We have one president, one employee. Our success rises or falls with her success. Supporting her is missional, fundamental, and critical. This year, with the help of Wise Stewards, our board took the step of creating a “Mutual Ministry Council,” consisting of a minority of board members and other outside trusted advisers. This council (which is not a board committee) provides a confidential space where the president can discuss her concerns and difficulties. In our context, putting this function beside the board, but outside the board’s supervisory and evaluative function, ensures confidentiality for the president while maintaining the board’s accountability for monitoring her performance.

There is so much more to say on this important topic. We continue to learn by doing, and by listening to the voices of others in our position or those – like Wise Stewards – who are able to share with us best practices and guide us in “having hard conversations, well.”


Read “No CEO goes it alone” at here.


Top Topics
Roles & Responsibilities
Board Essentials

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