There’s a saying in the world of chamber, trade association and nonprofit executives: “Put a board member between you and your problem.” In simple English, that means if you have some making trouble, protect your job by making sure someone in your leadership team has your back.
That saying highlights the unique problem executives of many organizations face. That is, you may be on top of the organizational chart, but you’re always in professional danger because one loud voice can silence a room–or an entire board of directors.
Nonprofit Boards of Directors ideally serve in their roles because of their affinity for the mission and vision, a commitment to its core values, and respect for the organization’s long-term success. But all too often, in the spirit of cronyism, convenience, conniving, apathy, understanding of organizational culture, or simply a rush to fill out the board of directors slate, you may find yourself on, or working for, a board of directors with few true believers.
Or believers in nothing at all. And instead, you may have a group of people whose board service is based on loving free lunches, the belief that their board service may look good in their obituary, somebody asked them to join and they said yes, and some who look at their board of directors time as a way to seize power of something–anything!–for the first time in their life.
And, add to that mix of course, those who are just happy to serve, but have no interest in speaking up or getting involved–board members of convenience, not commitment. Those board members–often the silent ones–can read the room and understand that their survival is based on their willingness to defer.
Let’s get back to that saying “Put a board member between you and the problem.” What the heck do you do if the problem isn’t some cranky gadfly somewhere in your community, but is instead the person who has taken the gavel and is now leading your organization? And how did that person–often unliked and disrespected–gain the gavel?
Picture the floundering board who is searching for people to join and they find an eager, hungry new board member. That new board member, despite all the signs of trouble, seizes control of the work of every committee, has ready-made decisions for every problem, and makes life uncomfortable for anyone who offers a dissenting opinion. Over time, that toxic behavior drives out the members who cared about the organization and becomes filled with those who may be recruited by the one loud voice.
That loud voice begins to take on oversized control and communications and eventually seeks a leadership position that puts them on track to lead the entire organization. Surely, you think to yourself, “someone is going to stop them from taking control!”, but you’re wrong. The toxic leader has sucked the oxygen, agenda, and willpower out of people and commandeered the culture as well. If the board hasn’t spoken up by now, they aren’t going in the one moment the toxic tornado cares about the most–taking power! People don’t willingly walk into the path of an 18-wheeler–or a toxic leader–there’s no upside! And, the day that leader ascends, trouble begins. For the organization and the staff.
For the organization, they may see past leadership walk away, board members leave if bullying and infighting levels increase, and more.
But for the executives who serve as the chief executive officer, risk levels skyrocket.
- Toxic leaders often have little regard to bylaws and best practices. Thus, legal issues may arise.
- Toxic leaders attack anyone who disagrees with them, which can spike attrition rates.
- Toxic leaders may not play fair in how they grow their power. They may cheat, lie, and steal as part of their modus operandi. As they may disregard organizational norms, they may override board elections, target staff who will not support unethical actions, reject decisions made by the full membership that are either buried or changed inside a smoke-filled room, and more. And, when that happens, the question is “Who’s going to stop them?”
In an environment with a weak governance structure and silenced board of directors, that task and a major decision is left to the chief executive officer. The decision is “Who do I put between me and this problem–who is the Chair of the Board?” or “Should I run like the wind and leave?
So what do you need to consider when it’s your chair who is the problem?
Here’s a few items to think through:
- Do I have strong enough relationships with my board members to have a conversation about corruption, ethical matters, or anything else regarding the chair?
- Can I trust anyone? Or are they in full Stockholm Syndrome mode and not wanting to get involved.
- Are there people on the board of directors willing to stand up by themselves and speak against the chair? Anyone? If not, that’s a red flag waving at you.
- Is this board capable of having a difficult conversation about one of its own?
- Do I have more than just “He said, she said” accusations? Remember, to beat the king, you have to be ready to take down the king.
- Is this battle worth it? Do you live in the community where you’re serving and will taking this stand make the rest of your life difficult?
- If you don’t win the battle, are you willing to fuel an enemy who may attack you long after you leave?
Finally, two last questions to consider is whether you have an oversized level of care for your organization that dwarfs everyone else’s care level in the room. If you care much more about your organization than anyone else in your organization–but especially your board members–and they are willing to accept bad behavior, corruption, unethical behavior, self-dealing any a million other things tied to broken organizational cultures, you’re in trouble. The one righteous person in the room becomes a cancer cell to the unrighteous. A mismatch. A bad fit.
And when you realize you’re the last good person standing, it’s time to find a new opportunity.
The final question might be “Does any of this matter and should I just shut my mouth for as long as this person’s in charge?” On that one, I’d say that’s up to you, but know that when it comes to corruption in processes, policies, and much more, the phrase I use often “If you condone it, you own it” applies as soon as you start signing off on the bad behavior. In fact, in case of legal wrongdoing, you may be even more complicit than the Chair bullying you into the actions. And then you’ll face a bleary-eyed board who says “why didn’t you tell us anything?”
Sure, you can contact authorities, file a lawsuit, claim whistleblower status, push back against the inevitable effort for your Chair to terminate you, and buy yourself a little time. But your short-term victories and buying yourself a little time won’t negate the fact that you’re no longer leading an organization you can trust, support, or lend your faith and service to.
In closing, winning warring armies win because they have superior manpower, resources, and overwhelming force.
If you don’t have an army of board members to fight back against the toxic leader, you won’t have the resources or the force to win.
Do the math re: your odds of winning vs. losing and go find your next great opportunity.
What do you do if you’re the paid staffer and your toxic chair is the problem?
Understand what you’re up against and know that living to take on your next adventure can count as a victory too.
That said, if the numbers are there, there are ways to win. Follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter (likes are below to follow me) to see how you can fight back if you can find and trust the support.
I’d welcome your feedback on this. Reach out to me anytime.
About the author:
Pete Havel is author of The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees, and Cultures . He is President of Fireproofed Leadership, his firm that provides public speaking, training and consulting services for organizations in need of workplace culture and leadership improvement. He worked as an executive at several top trade associations and a chamber of commerce. Additionally, he helps individuals through coaching, “career chaos” moments, resume and interview preparation and providing strategic career and workplace culture advice. He can be reached by phone at 214-244.7906 or through his website, petehavel.com .
Pete’s email is email@example.com
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