After 35 years working as the staff guy in three different non-profits, serving on a variety of community boards and listening to stories from some of my colleagues in other organizations, I have to say 98 percent of people I have both worked with and for on non-profit boards are terrific people. They care, they do their homework, they respect staff and they try to make a difference.
But ohhhhh … that other 2 percent.
In the interests of protecting the guilty, let me paint a picture of the five most destructive personas on non-profit boards:
1. CAPTAIN QUEEG
“Mr. Maryk, you may tell the crew for me that there are four ways of doing things aboard my ship: The right way, the wrong way, the Navy way, and my way. They do things my way, and we’ll get along.”
Captain Queeg (Humphrey Bogart in the movie) was the original by-the-book captain in “The Caine Mutiny who eventually lost his nerve during a storm and was relieved of his command, setting the stage for mutiny. The Captain Queeg persona has to have EVERYTHING go his/her way. There are no compromises. Nothing is ever good enough.
I had a board member in one organization who, on my first day of employment, cornered me at the opening “welcome” session and said, “You know about the XXX program? Well, don’t eff with it.”
Captain Queegs wreak havoc on the very essence of the way a board is supposed to work. By their very definition, boards at their best are vehicles for a group of people who care passionately about something to reach a collective decision.
Advice: Screen Board candidates for Queegs. Having one on a board will be painful – and they tend to freak when the world doesn’t bend their way.
2. MIRANDA PRIESTLY
“Details of your incompetence do not interest me. Tell Simone I’m not going to approve that girl that she sent me for the Brazilian layout. I asked for clean, athletic, smiling. She sent me dirty, tired and paunchy. And R.S.V.P. Yes to Michael Kors’ party, I want the driver to drop me off at 9:30 and pick me up at 9:45 sharp. Call Natalie at Glorious Foods and tell her no for the 40th time. No! I don’t want dacquoise. I want tortes filled with warm rhubarb compote. Then call my ex-husband and remind him that the parent-teacher conference is at Dalton tonight. Then call my husband, ask him to meet me for dinner at that place I went to with Massimo.”
Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada”) carries with her two fatal flaws as a board member. First, she is an order-giver of the first degree, especially when it comes to staff (although not necessarily limited to staff, in her more extreme phase): “Do this. Do that. And, please, do it more effectively than you normally would.”
Second, she is boundary-less. About where her job ends and that of the non-profit begins. About where her own persecuted staff ends and that of the non-profit begins. About why it isn’t a great idea to have an already over-burdened staff do personal stuff for you just because you are the chair.
3. JACK TORRANCE
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
You may recall that Jack Torrance in “The Shining” (Jack Nicholson’s character) signed on to write a book and took a gig as a caretaker in a god-forsaken hotel on top of a mountain that was snowbound for winter, and he eventually went bonkers. The pivotal scene in the movie comes when his wife discovers the manuscript he has been working on for months and months turns out to be just “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” typed thousands and thousands of times over hundreds and hundreds of pages.
Well, Jack Torrance is the committee chair who seems to never quite bring a relatively simple task to completion. For board meeting after board meeting, an issue goes on and on and on, with a lot of great appearances about work being done, but no actual results or conclusion.
Note: An adjunct to this type is the Board member who, no matter how good and timely the work of the committee, alwats insists on the full board re-doing it.
4. DOLORES UMBRIDGE
“Every headmaster and headmistress of Hogwarts has brought something new to the weighty task of governing this historic school, and that is as it should be, for without progress there will be stagnation and decay. There again, progress for progress’s sake must be discouraged, for our tried and tested traditions often require no tinkering. A balance, then, between old and new, between permanence and change, between tradition and innovation because some changes will be for the better, while others will come, in the fullness of time, to be recognized as errors of judgment. Meanwhile, some old habits will be retained, and rightly so, whereas others, outmoded and outworn, must be abandoned. Let us move forward, then, into a new era of openness, effectiveness and accountability, intent on preserving what ought to be preserved, perfecting what needs to be perfected, and pruning wherever we find practices that ought to be prohibited.”
OK, this one is a bit obscure, but my kids were of prime age during the Harry Potter hey-day, and Dolores Umbridge was one of the best characters. She always wore pink, had great affection for cats and, once she was named headmistress at Hogwarts, proceeded to post 100 trivial edicts and injunctions and restrictions throughout the school. This board member is all saccharine sweetness on the outside and evil on the inside. Dolores Umbridge is the very definition of “officious.”
The Dolores Umbridges on our boards can’t see the forest for the trees. If on a Presbyterian session, they refer to clause 9.1.3 in the “Book of Order” in order to cast a trump card on any discussion with which they disagree. They lose track of the “for-purpose” nature of non-profits, and question every trivial action or decision in order to demonstrate their authority.
Advice: If you have a board nominee who asks whether meetings follow Robert’s Rules, this is not necessarily a disqualification, but look closely at whether he/she also owns an inordinate number of cats.
5. CHAUNCEY GARDINER
President “Bobby”: Mr. Gardiner, do you agree with Ben, or do you think that we can stimulate growth through temporary incentives?
Chauncey: As long as the roots are not severed, all is well. And all will be well in the garden.
President “Bobby”: In the garden.
Chauncey: Yes. In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.
President “Bobby”: Spring and summer.
President “Bobby”: Then fall and winter.
President “Bobby”: Hm. Well, Mr. Gardiner, I must admit that is one of the most refreshing and optimistic statements I’ve heard in a very, very long time.
I have to admit that “Being There“ is one of my favorite movies. Chauncey Gardiner (Peter Sellers’ character) is the illiterate and clueless long-time gardener for the wealthy and politically connected “old man.” All he knows is tending the old man’s garden. The old man dies, and Chauncey is suddenly left with no tether in the world. He eventually connects with the political set, and utters some meaningless platitudes about the only thing he knows – gardening. The “experts” immediately equate his comments with the overall state of economy, and he is pronounced a genius.
The Chauncey Gardiners of the world come into our board meetings and make overly simplistic pronouncements that sound really really good. If you are very unlucky, they leave the rest of the board nodding their heads in agreement. And leave staff dumbfounded after the meeting, wondering what on earth the board was thinking and what they are supposed to “do” with this board guidance.
The world of non-profits is in a world of change right now. Disruptive technologies are challenging traditional forms of how we bring people together to create and deliver value. We need to be on the watch for disruptive board members as well.