Patience and the Beauty of Board Self-Regulation

By Kirk Roberts, Co-Owner of Free Range Nonprofit Solutions


Sometimes when conducting consultations with nonprofit Boards, one of my hardest tasks is to follow my second rule of meetings: Wait for it.

When Boards bring in a consultant, they usually expect that person to come in and do most of the talking. However, the greatest value I can bring to a Board is by working within their reality, rather than applying some outside construct.

To grasp that reality, I need to hear the voices that are hesitant, introversive, contrarian, or even off-the-wall. That requires not only listening to the person speaking, but being aware of the others in the room. Who is contemplating? Who seems to be struggling with the picture being painted by their colleagues? Who is disengaged? Getting their contribution to help shape that reality I’m seeking to grasp requires not just calling on them with questions, but waiting an extra beat—or three or four—for a perspective deeper than an initial response.

A Board president I worked with a few years ago taught me the value of waiting. He could out-wait everyone in the room. In the ensuing silence of his patience, I often shifted uncomfortably…until that next voice, or the one after it, shifted the discussion in a way which brought greater depth, led to understanding, or even offered the good advice of, “Let’s pick this up later.”

Waiting is hard in a room full of Board members when the discussion starts to venture into untenable ideas, unrealistic goals, or old and grinding gears. As a director and a consultant, I have found, however, that most Boards can self-regulate, and that the less I cajole and police, the more effective I am as a leader.

Letting that self-regulation happen naturally can only happen for me by acting upon my first rule of meetings: Trust the people in the room.

As I open the door to a meeting, I make that my final thought: “Trust the people in the room.” It doesn’t mean I will be passive at the meeting. On the contrary. I am paid to be assertive, and my experience gives me a valuable perspective to share. But if I act with trust, I often only have to shed light on the path, rather than dictating action.

“Oh yeah,” I hear you thinking, “trusting the people in the room is easy with a kumbaya Board all headed in the same direction. You don’t have to deal with the head cases I have!”

I find trusting especially important with head cases in the room. Perhaps the most troublesome Board member is the Agendroid, the member with an agenda. I, like you, have staffed Boards with Agendroids. In my early days, I would try to confront, re-direct, or minimize these personalized agendas. I found that rather than deflating their agenda, I focused attention on it and created a staff vs. Board dynamic.

When I decided to just let the Agendroid push to their heart’s content, what I found was a self-regulating norm taking effect. By no means is this an instant self-correction. We have all had day-long retreats, months, or even years derailed by personalized agendas.

What I have learned in these cases is that self-regulation is a growth stage for a Board. It often takes being challenged to self-regulate that spurs that growth. And the more a Board learns to self-regulate, the more it gains wisdom and evolves toward the visionary state of high functioning.

There is a saying, “Patience is born from our inability to control much in our lives.” For those of us with the withering title of Executive Director, we understand how little control we actually exert over the work of our Boards and the future of our organizations. Patience is a discipline—along with humility and vulnerability—which may seem incongruous with leadership, but is in fact crucial to success.

So the next time that really bad idea comes up at your Board meeting, wait for it. Wisdom shall prevail.