Board and Staff – Dysfunction, Function and Leadership

What does dysfunction look like? How do we fix it? What Characteristics Are Necessary In A Good Volunteer Leader and Staff? All of these questions were explored on a rainy Sunday morning not too long ago when I had the rare opportunity to explore this with a group of passionate and talented volunteer leaders and staff of a major nonprofit organization where the focus was leadership. Here are the questions we explored and here is what they had to say. 

What Does Dysfunction Look Like?– It was fairly easy to get a lot of input on this question. Dysfunction is all around us in one way or another, it is the degree and how it limits us, is when it is recognized. We came up with a list that both the volunteer leaders and staff members agreed upon during the session that explored what could limit the potentials of our organizations and ultimately put it out of business.

  • Lack of training, diversity, flexibility, recognition, preparation, participation, purpose and alignment
  • “Group think” leading to paralysis when the group doesn’t allagree (consensus is a foreign topic)
  • Too many objectives leaving the Board unfocused and frustrated
  • Clashing personnel that impacts the work of the organization
  • Alpha personalities controlling the Board and micromanaging staff
  • Board size both being too small and too large
  • Board’s inability to make a decision
  • Poorly structured agendas not focused on the strategic plan but tasks and committee work
  • Everyone is just too nice and doesn’t want to disagree with each other

How Do We Fix Dysfunction?– It was a bit harder to think of ways to fix the dysfunction, but there was a “blinding flash of the obvious” or BFO in the room where one person said, “you need a plan and you need to stick to it.” The cornerstone of a strategic plan is the first step in what binds an organization together and exposes dysfunction in order to fix it. This BFO helped us all focus on the real benefit of a strategic Board driving the vision of the organization.

  • Creating a strategic plan with performance measures and targets that are realistic and achievable
  • Setting a Board agenda that is focused solelyon the goals set in the strategic plan
  • Conducting Board training withstaff focused on addressing the symbiotic role of the Board and staff working in unison
  • Empowering staff to do their job after the Board has set the strategic roadmap through its plan along with the budget
  • Committing to communicating on a regular basis and making it the foundation of the relationships in the organization
  • Evaluating constantly to make sure that progress is being made and changes are adopted to keep the organization on course

What Characteristics Are Necessary In A Good Volunteer Leader and Staff?– Finally, after much discussion around dysfunction and the fixes; we asked the question, what are the characteristics of someone serving in a leadership position? Most of these characteristics are important in both categories but the group distinguished the most necessary ones in each group even though they might apply to both. As you can see, many of these are not unique to both groups and very necessary for strong leadership.

Volunteer LeaderStaff Leader

Risk TakerRisk Taker
Good CharacterContinuity/Historical Knowledge Keeper
TrustworthyGood Character
Courageous FollowerTrustworthy
Open to IdeasOrganized
FlexiblePriority Driven
Consensus BuilderCaring
Resource ConsciousFacilitator

Overall, the group agreed that someone in a leadership position needs to employ “situational leadership” even though we all have a tendency to naturally lead either in a team, authoritative or hands-off style. It is important to understand your leadership style in order to effectively leverage that style but also be the “chameleon” to utilize other leadership styles in order to adapt not only to changes in your organization but to different people with different viewpoints that may not align with yours. 

Good leaders are ones where they turn around and they have followers behind them without asking anyone to follow them. Dysfunction should never be the function of the organization in the long term. It becomes ingrained in the culture and is very difficult to remove but recognizing that it exists, and taking painful steps, is necessary to make change happen. What does dysfunction look like to your organization, how does it get fixed and what type of leaders do you need to make change happen?