A few years ago, in an address to the Directors’ Roundtable of the Conference Board of Canada, New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna said that many boards show distinct signs of the Stockholm syndrome. On these boards, members are so enamored with their position and perks, he suggested, that they have stopped asking challenging questions. In the classic Stockholm syndrome, hostages become sympathetic to their kidnappers. In the board version, board members agree with everything the administration does. Diligence descends into passivity and dissent gives way to dependence.
McKenna was speaking about corporate boards, but I suspect that this same phenomenon can operate within nonprofit boards. In fact, it may be even more prevalent in churches, theological schools, and other religious settings, given the close relationships that develop between Christian leaders and volunteer board members.
Groupthink is an ever-present danger on a board, particularly when the desire for uniformity becomes pervasive. When it takes over, politeness and kindness hinder serious and robust interaction. Frank conversations are discouraged and are seen as overly judgmental or critical. And presidents and board chairs neglect to foster vigorous debate about proposals.
How can a chair leading a Stockholm board strengthen board engagement without stirring up opposition just for the sake of argument?
1. The duty of prudence. Chairs need to help board members understand the relationship between spiritual concern, careful discernment, and risk management. Boards have a duty of prudence to ensure that the resources of the institution are used responsibly and ethically to advance the mission effectively. The chair should explain the board’s duty of prudence at the annual board orientation session, but it may be appropriate to bring up this duty at other moments as well. Diligence is essential; hard questions are healthy; dispassionate opposition is normal.
2. The chair sets the tone. Chairs should ensure that the board is hearing diverse perspectives on hotbutton issues, and the chair should listen with care to dissenters. Ideally, the board meeting is a safe place for members to share insights and ask questions openly. Some board members may feel uneasy with dissent, equating it with “not being a team player.” But the chair’s attitude toward the dissenter sets the tone. The chair has a special duty to keep the conversation unemotional and respectful.
3. The mandated authority. The board has the mandate to advance the institution’s mission, and, in most theological schools, it has the final authority over the institution. Most board members are aware that opposition to the administration’s proposals must never be undertaken lightly. A “no” decision should never be used to discipline an administrator or to get back at leaders — if there is need for discipline, it should be handled as a separate issue. However, the president does need to accept that the board has final authority. Usually the president sits with the board as controversial decisions are taken and has full voice in the discussion.
Opposition is not, of course, an absolute good. Some board members know only one mode of operation — dissent — and they think their primary role is to keep administrators in check. Working with this kind of board can make effective leadership almost impossible.
Board chairs should work to diffuse both kinds of tendencies — the Stockholm syndrome and its opposite. They do this by teaching their boards and administrators how to disagree while remaining supportive, by educating stakeholders about the principles that undergird the board’s decisions, and by modeling fully informed decision making that is focused on the school’s mission above personal agendas.
An earlier, longer version of this article, titled “The ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ in Church Board–Management Interactions,” originally appeared at www.churchboardchair.ca.