In 2006 Jim Brown, a governance consultant, wrote The Imperfect Board Member. Discovering the Seven Disciplines of Governance Excellence (Jossey-Bass). Although considerable time has passed since its publication, it still conveys useful guidance to new board members, particularly for those connected with non-profits. His motivation is to develop boards that are both smart and healthy (xv). He references Bill Dimma’s observation that board members individually can be quite competent, but collectively incompetent.
Jim writes the book in the form of a series of interactions between Dave, the CEO of a company that recently when public, and Trevor, whom Dave discovers is a pastor. They both agreed to serve on the board of the Cedar Grove Community Care. Trevor begins informally to mentor Dave about the role of a board member and his insights also help Dave to develop the capacity of the board for his public company. In the course of their conversations Dave discerns seven key disciplines, each of which is related to a distinct organizational reality. When applied collectively they enable good board work.
Brown summarizes these disciplines on pages 160-61 and they include “reflect…on organizational results; respect…owner expectations; select…your prominent leadership; direct and protect…organizational performance; expect…great board-management interaction; connect…for healthy board relations.” These elements are defined and explained in some detail on pages 136-37.
As Brown outlines his seven disciplines, he incorporates various principles that assist board operations. For example, his chapter entitled “The Secret Formula” discusses the importance of good communication between the board and its various stakeholders, but also indicates clearly that authority flows from the owners through the board to the CEO and staff. Accountability conversely flows from the staff through the CEO to the Board and then to the owners. Keeping these relational interactions clear is critical for good board operations (40). He also notes that the behaviour that is rewarded is the behaviour that a board will receive (53). One other piece of counsel is worth considering — bring options to the board, not recommendations. “A recommendation is a decision in disguise” (65).
From the standpoint of church boards and their leadership Brown’s ideas provide a helpful framework for understanding the role, relationships, and responsibilities of board members. His connection of each discipline with an aspect of agency life, such as organizational results or board-management interaction, serves to connect board culture to organizational health and excellence. Brown’s attempt to integrate Dave’s life as CEO working with a corporate board, his involvement with a non-profit board, and his family relationships presents an interesting perspective. However, it does raise this question: what is the basis of the proposed integration? Within the context of a church board the character qualities Paul lists for church leaders (1 Timothy 3) are also the qualities that God expects every believer to emulate in the church, the household and the community. Mature spirituality will become evident in various domains because the whole basis of a Christian’s living is Kingdom reality. There is no division between sacred and secular.
Church board chairpersons will also realize that the dynamics of prayer and worship generate within the board a different culture. Church boards access the resources of the Holy Spirit in their quest of the congregation’s mission. This includes gifts of spiritual wisdom and traits such as goodness, love, and humility — all of which contribute significantly to board excellence.
Within the corporate board world CEO’s often serve as board chairs. It seems that this is Dave’s role, but this was unclear to me in Brown’s book. Various board members of Dave’s fictitious company are named and Dave has interesting interactions with an variety of them, but none of them are the chair of his board apparently. In the non-profit board on which Dave serves there is a chairperson distinction from the agency CEO. So here is one area where the culture of a church board will be different from Dave’s corporate board experience — the work of a chairperson in a non-profit agency board. In Brown’s scenario Dave drives the quest of board excellence. However, who does this in the case of a church board? It might be a lead pastor, but probably it has to include the board chair as well. More clarity about the role of the chairperson in board life, work and development would be a desired addition to Brown’s presentation. It think Brown demonstrates this implicitly when two board members challenge Dave about his way of leading the board, but nothing changes until Dave changes.