Helping Boards Be Strategic and Constructive


In their article Board Members Behaving BadlyNanette Fridman and Kathy Cohen talk about 13 unhealthy practices of some board members. We are inspired by the article by Fridman and Cohen but are using it as spring board for our own observations and experiences of boards. We have picked a few of their practices to consider.

Board Vision

We believe that all boards should go through an exercise to describe their vision. We want them to imagine what it would look like if their board really developed over the next three years. This vision creates an aspirational future they can work to build.

Dinosaur– Some longstanding legacy leaders see the board as a social club. Some may not be focused on the long term mission of the organization but rather at maintaining the social cohesiveness of their group – they want to be left alone. That may mean just coming to this once a month meeting ritual because they like to know what’s going on.

Creating a board vision can be disruptive. Once the board has decided on a direction, longstanding leaders need to bless the plan even if they don’t have a complete understanding of what that future will be like. A vision invites the willing to get on board and helps the unwilling to find a station to get off.

Board Expectations

We believe that all board members should agree to a set of realistic and achievable expectations. Some examples are to serve on a committee or a team, to be active in the congregation, to give to the annual campaign or to be prepared for meetings.

Ghosts- The ghost does not show up or has inconsistent attendance at meetings. They may avoid leadership team building training saying “been there, done that.” They just feel they deserve to be a trustee. If you have term limits, you can let them leave by attrition. If you don’t have term limits, you should make it increasingly clear what is expected and make it uncomfortable for these ghosts to maintain the status quo.

Denigrators– The denigrator attacks the credibility of the board and its leaders. In a healthy board, members certainly may have vigorous debate. The meeting notes may reflect multiple options; however, once a decision is made, the board speaks with one voice. They know how hard it is to get any message across to the community. They understand how when people speak at cross purposes, it can cause confusion.

Board expectations help created shared understanding for participation and team work.

Written Goals

We believe that boards should have written goals for their leadership and for key committees. Unfortunately, 80% of USCJ congregations don’t put things down in writing which contributes to a lack of accountability and team work.

Overpromiser– The overpromsier talks a lot and make promises but often fails to follow up. You need to help leaders set realistic goals and make clear that you have a system to support them and to track their progress.

Written goals help keep leaders on track rather than kicking issues down the road.

Board Meeting Design

Our Sulam for Current Leaders program helps leaders design strategic meetings that address the most important decisions the board needs to manage and to hold strategic information sessions that expand the learning around critical congregational issues. When this is done, meetings will more likely be described as “time well spent.”

Oxygen Thieves – These people are so loud and dominating they may intimidate members who are shy, introverted or modest. Good meeting design ensures creative ways to welcome all of the voices at the table. Some issues may be discussed in small break out groups. We recommend that you follow the old Robert’s Rule that no one can speak twice until everyone has had a chance to speak once. This way you avoid giving the dominating person or bully “too much oxygen.” They have to wait their turn like everyone else.

Pot Stirrers – The authors portray this type in a somewhat negative way. While we certainly have found some who just like to stir up trouble, you need people to put provocative ideas on the table. You need practices that allow brainstorming without “breaking up all of the furniture.”

On important issues, the creative, the entrepreneurial and the visionary leaders should be given a chance to share their ideas rather than be forced to debate tactical minutia. In any board there will be intuitive thinkers and concrete thinkers, short term thinkers and long terms thinkers. Effective boards need the capacity to stir all in.

Good design helps leaders honor the value of welcoming a diverse array of leaders to create a richer community.


Most board members are committed and well-intended. We probably all remember times when we exhibited some of the unhelpful behaviors in the article. In a healthy board, leaders can learn and utilize healthy leadership approaches and practices to minimize destructive behavior and maximize constructive leadership. That effort will make a positive impact.


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