Five lessons board members can learn about leadership

As my friend Rich Male likes to say, “Leadership is one of the most talked about and least understood ideas in the nonprofit world.” There are volumes of books on leadership, seminars to take and discussions to have. But real leadership development requires action and practice, and you can’t get that from a book.

For a few years now as part of my volunteer work, I’ve been training prospective board members, mostly on the basic legal requirements and top ten responsibilities. We go through the lists, share examples and discuss what meetings can be like. After we’ve covered all the conventional information, I share the biggest thing I’ve learned about being on a board: it’s the best leadership development program available, particularly right now. The tough decisions and thoughtfulness required of boards are ramped up due to the financial crisis in which we find ourselves.

Here are a five valuable things board members can learn about leadership:

1. You cannot do it alone

Boards are set up to have multiple members for a reason. Better decision-making requires more than one mind. In order for ideas and decisions to move forward, a group consensus needs to emerge among board members. You learn to gather the right information, communicate well with others and advocate. Part of being a good leader is sharing a way to move forward and mobilizing those around you to join in. You will also learn to listen and gain a respect for the opinions and thoughts of others.

2. There is no passing the buck

Boards are the final decision-makers for organizations, which is a huge responsibility. On high- functioning boards, the trustees don’t shy away from tough decisions. They gather data, consider the options and then make the best decision given the information. This is not always a fun or pretty process.
Laying off staff is heartbreaking, but sometimes necessary. Declining one opportunity to develop another can be difficult. However, all leaders are required to make tough choices, and learning to do this is both an art and a science. Boards offer opportunities to make these decisions and learn from their effects.

3. You get to witness the good and the bad, and learn from both

During my time of service to organizations, I have had the privilege to watch some outstanding board members and chairs and learned a lot. From the way they conducted meetings, communicated with other members and prioritized issues for the board, these great leaders showed grace, humility and compassion. I also remember the ineffective board members and how they acted or didn’t act. Both types of experiences are important as you think about your own actions and how you want to lead.

4. Develop your own style

Boards offer opportunities to step up the leadership ladder. By taking on the role of committee chair, you can develop your talents while contributing to the larger work of the organization, and learn to drive agendas and important projects for the organization. Reflecting on your success and failures during this process provides strong feedback you can use as you work your way forward in other leadership positions, either on a board or in other arenas.

5. Develop leaders who will come after you

Succession is tantamount to board effectiveness, just as it is in leadership. You will not be the leader forever if the program or project you lead is to continue. Taking time to develop the next leader provides a chance to encourage the best in others and transfer skills that help you refine your own attributes. It will also ensure the future success of the organization, which is a positive outcome for all leaders.

In order for the board experience to be truly worthwhile, you need to select an area about which you are passionate and to which you are committed. Simply joining a board to gain experience would be a somewhat shallow experience. However, as with most volunteer experiences, you will get just as much out of it as you offer to the organization.

This treasure trove of leadership experience on a board is available to you for the small price of financial support for the board’s organization and some good intentions toward your work. It sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

See also:

The Ultimate Board Member’s Book

The Board Game

Super Boards

The Practitioner’s Guide to Governance as Leadership

Image credits:,,


Leave a reply

Welcome! Please provide your log-in information below.
Forget your password?
Enter your email or user name and your log-in information will be sent to the email on file.