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"What is the one leadership quality or attribute that is absolutely necessary for a board chair?"

Posted by BoardSource on Dec 4, 2012 1:10:31 PM

12-4-12By Mindy R. Wertheimer

That was the question posed to me by a colleague.

If you Google leadership attributes, you will discover lists and lists of attributes with many similarities — but no agreement on the absolute one. Even in The Board Chair Handbook, I list multiple leadership qualities without identifying "the one" that is absolutely necessary for a board chair.

Some common attributes on these lists include good communicator, passionate about the mission, visionary, respectful, motivates others, genuine, intelligent, and shows integrity.

Regardless of which list you prefer to reference, there does emerge one implicit quality that should be embraced in order to effectively execute any of the top 5, 10, or 15 leadership attributes. The one quality is a willingness to be self-reflective in critically answering two questions:

1. How am I doing in applying these attributes to my role and responsibilities as a board chair?

2. What do I need to do differently in order to be a more effective board chair governing in the best interests of the nonprofit? (I'm sensing integrity and humility are part of the equation.)

The self-reflective board chair’s self-evaluation is framed by his or her governance responsibilities in and out of the boardroom. This entails assessing one's interactions with others — the chief executive, board members, community members, donors, and other stakeholders. These relationships are so crucial to leadership effectiveness — we lead in consort with others. For example, being a good listener and communicator appear on most lists of attributes, but have you made the effort to get feedback on how well you are doing? You may think your board meetings are running well, but the board member who doesn't feel heard or who feels put off by you may not agree. Your partnership with your chief executive may be labeled ineffective if you are talking at her rather than with her.

In addition to assessing interactions with others, the board chair should assess how important decisions are made. As the board chair, you have a voice in determining the structure and process for decision making. For example, have you given your board enough time to review budget material and ask questions prior to a vote to approve the budget? Have you structured the board meetings so that the board is making strategic planning decisions and not simply rubber stamping decisions made by a committee?

In addition to your scheduled overall board assessment, take the time to engage in reflective thinking and set fresh goals for yourself in becoming a more effective board chair. We always have room for improvement and, besides, we owe it to the nonprofit we care about deeply to do so. Consider making it a part of your New Year's resolutions.

What are your plans for becoming a more effective board chair (or board member) in the coming year? Please comment below.

Mindy R. Wertheimer, Ph.D., LCSW, is the director of the MSW Program and faculty member of the School of Social Work, Georgia State University. She is a consultant and trainer for nonprofits, professional associations, local and state governments, foundations, and education institutions. She is also the author of The Board Chair Handbook, Third Edition.

Topics: Board Best Practices

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