Set Reasonable Expectations for Your Board Chairman

Overreliance on your chairman can lead to poor leadership and decisions.

May 8, 2012

We’re constantly sorted into different roles, and this categorization helps us know our place in the world. Some roles have titles, like “leader,” “follower,” or “observer.”

These roles often change in any given situation. Board members often have to switch between their “day” jobs as managers or community leaders to their roles as volunteer directors.

But it’s often through this constant shuffle of roles that directors can lose track of their fiduciary and strategic duties. The way you participate in the boardroom affects your role as a board member.

The first step is recognizing that all directors are responsible for the credit union’s strategic decisions. That means every person’s unique skills and strengths are assets for instituting effective practices and policies.

You can’t rely on your board’s chairman alone to drive the credit union’s vision; nor can he or she be a scapegoat for poor decisions.

This tendency to rely entirely on the chairman can lead to poor leadership and decision making. It also can cause fiscal responsibility to go by the wayside. Instead, each board member should contribute equally to a board’s strategic decisions.Directors Newsletter

To fine-tune relationships within the board, I like to refer to the Latin phrase primus inter pares, or “first among equals.” This phrase has historically referred to a group of community elders working together as equally responsible clan members, trying to live peacefully as members of the same land.

One of these elders was named to oversee meetings and mediate tough decisions. This role today is held by a board’s chairman—a peer with the duty of keeping board peace and promoting fair and efficient governance.

A board often elects this person to the position because he or she regularly demonstrates quality leadership and/or longevity.

With this title also comes the responsibility of board meeting oversight. And often the chairman can get bogged down with other tasks because board members haven’t stepped up.

To ease the chairman’s burden, recognize he or she isn’t in some lofty position, but instead is “first among equals.” It’s the chairman’s job to help the board stay on task and stay committed to your credit union’s strategic values—not to pick up other directors’ slack.

So, in looking to the chairman as our leader, we can act as followers, grateful for the chairman’s dedication to the credit union.

Paul Beedle, author and “followership” expert, says: “Followership is a discipline of supporting leaders and helping them to lead well. It’s not submission, but the wise and good care of leaders, done out of a sense of gratitude for their willingness to take on the responsibilities of leadership, and a sense of hope and faith in their abilities and potential.”

And by considering this point of view, we can better serve our chairman. We also can commit ourselves to being actively engaged board directors, fulfilling our duties without relying on only a few to do the work. 

GEOFFREY J. GRUDZINSKI serves on the board of $244 million asset RBCU, Richfield, Minn.