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4 Ways Boards of Directors Use Servant Leadership

The Board Chairperson is like the moon shining by a light no less spectacular because it is only reflected. This kind of chair never forgets that the conductor doesn’t make the music.”
~John Carver
The Unique Double Servant-Leadership Role of the Board Chairperson by John Carver is chapter three of the book we are using as a guide, Practicing Servant-Leadership: Succeeding Through Trust, Bravery, and Forgiveness by Larry C. Spears and Michelle Lawrence.
John Carver provides an excellent discussion and a sort of paradigm shift on the role of the board chairperson and the role of the board as a group in his chapter on servant leadership. Having served on several boards of directors in the past, I am always refreshed by Carver’s no-nonsense concepts for boards and their chairs and how eloquently and transparently Servant leadership serves as the way for boards to operate to better serve the people and the organization.
Carver argued that boards of directors are in trouble and have been in trouble for years. He quotes Peter Drucker in 1974, Harold Geneen in 1984 and the Danforth Foundation report in 1992 indicating that boards are primarily nonfunctioning. Geneen complained that about 95% of the top 500 companies in America’s boards are not doing what they are supposed to do – morally, ethically, and legally.
And that they couldn’t, even if they wanted to.
In this vein, Carver proposes four ways that boards can shift in consciousness to become a functioning board. Here is a recap of each.
Transformation Toward a Substantially New Institution
Carver created a program called Policy Governance®  model which sets a new course for board leadership that aligns with Robert Greenleaf’s vision to, “invite people to consider a new domain of leadership grounded in a state of being, not doing.” Servant Leaders understand that leadership and service are not something you do, rather it is an expression of being. Transforming toward a new institution is not about organizing a better agenda or more fundraising. It is about a deeper level of consciousness whereby leadership at a high level concerns itself with values- the importance of life, commitment to life and the tradeoffs of a life of service.
Governing boards have to be able to combine the ideas of technology and values to connect as Carver says who we are and what we can do. The compelling question that John Gardner asks us as servant leaders is, “Do we have it in us to create a future worthy of our past?” Board leadership must integrally mean the phrase, “on behalf of” to every single motion, vote, idea, action, and plan to act on behalf of others. Indeed, the best of board governance is possible when it includes the concepts of servant leadership.
Where Servanthood Begins: Fidelity to the Organization
Board leadership should always operate under the awareness that it is to be an owner-representative. This means that the board understands that if they are operating on someone’s behalf, they should know who that someone is. And that the board’s role consists of an intimate relationship with those owners, not the relationship to staff. Carver argues that the board is a servant to the owners. In this way, the board takes it upon themselves to know what the owners want before it decides on what the organizational goals should be. The owners should expect that a board operating on their behalf know about them, better than they know about themselves regarding the organization and the matters at hand. As a Texas legislator said one time that sums it up, “I vote the way my constituents would vote if they knew what I know.”
The Discipline of Leadership
Carver discusses the concept called the problem of agency which is defined as using one’s own judgment on behalf of someone else. The challenge with the problem of agency is that an agent has to be able to subjugate their personal needs in the service of the other. This is what servant leadership is about. Board members who are Servant Leaders know that when they take their seats, a transformation must take place wherein they are the vessels through which others dreams, decide, vision, and intend. De Tocqueville’s experiences capture the point beautifully. Citizens, he said, got involved in their local civic organizations first out of self-interest, yet as they became keenly aware and mindful of their public responsibility, they began to transcend their self-interest to other interested. This is the transformation board members must engage in as Servant Leaders.
Another crucial point for board members to remember if that as Servant Leaders, board members must transition from an operational mindset to a governing mindset. To not make this transition will cripple the board. Operational behavior does not serve the board of directors, rather a conceptual mindset is what is needed. Greenleaf referenced this when he said, “Leadership, in the sense of going out ahead to show the way is more conceptual than operating.” It is necessary for board members to become conceptual people who envision a world that isn’t, rather than think and operating from a world that is.
I have been on boards where it was our goal to recruit members with a certain skill set, say, for example, an attorney, an accountant, etc. to make sure we would have the skills on the board that we needed. But, that can work against a board. Carver says that board should learn to use experts to inform the wisdom of the board but never to substitute for it. Wow! Boards have to take responsibility as a group and not lean on one skill set to save themselves from their group responsibility. There is a huge difference in board-as-expert-collection from the board as responsible servant leaders for an ownership.
From Responsible Individuals to Responsible Boards
Lastly, Carver points out that it is not enough for trustees to be servant leaders individually. Doing so is not conducive to creating a servant leadership group. He says that boards can easily be incompetent groups of competent people, untrustworthy groups of trustworthy people, and cruel groups of good-hearted people.
Bam! I had to read that twice!
Greenleaf reminded us that servant leaders role as board members is to act as a unitary body. It’s all about working as a group. Carver says there is a simple way to test this. He says that any board that authentically works as a group will tell its CEO when we speak as individuals in or out of board meetings, you never have to pay attention to any of us!” Working as a group of board members allows boards to delegate clearly and powerfully to a CEO. As Carver point out, board members must speak with one voice and one voice only. A chairperson’s authority must come from a group decision. This is not to say or imply that there will always be unanimous votes, but that if the mindset and consciousness are not spoken as a group it hasn’t spoken at all.
Carver pulls us on the carpet as board members regarding our consciousness and ways of working for the organization and the owners. He uses Servant Leadership as a guidepost for how we can radically shift the way we see our role as board members. This chapter is right on time as I have just accepted a board position with a state coalition. These concepts and ideas are here to remind me of my goal as a servant leader with this board.
Caroline Myss, in her book, Invisible Acts of Power: Channeling Grace in your Everyday Life puts it this way, “We must come to terms with our personal agendas and desires while on the path of impersonal, spiritual service. Our task is to infuse our action with all our faith and belief in its goodness and release it into the universe to do its invisible work.”
To Boards That Serve,
Dr. Crystal

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