Boards and Compromise

As someone who believes that boards can and should lead, I find myself considering the relationship between leadership and compromise. Compromise too much and your board’s claim to leadership starts looking very weak. Compromise too little and you may well find yourselves becoming a contradiction in terms – a leadership body that has no followers.

Strong leadership requires a clear vision AND the ability to enrol others in that vision. For boards, creating a clear vision however is not about any one individual, or even themselves as a group, having a brilliant idea. For boards leadership is about the board as a group seeking to understand their owners’ intentions and translating those intentions into organizational success and safety.

Thus strong leadership in the board context is about collective power exercised within a democratic framework. By definition therefore, boards operate in the world of compromise. So what does that mean about their ability to lead?

For my answer, I want to distinguish between process and results. Boards are essentially leaders of a process – the process of translating owners’ intentions into reality. To be successful boards need to lead:

  • Their owners in understanding that they are owners and the powerful expression of their intentions
  • Themselves in defining and executing and monitoring their collective role as the link between their owners and their CEO
  • Their CEO in fulfilling and monitoring the expectations which the board has created on behalf of their owners.

Board leadership is therefore about creating and sustaining the framework within which the CEO’s individual leadership can flourish. In creating this framework, boards must always be ready to make compromises between different owners’ perspectives and between the expectations they would ideally like to create and what can realistically be achieved but dealing with these conflicts, and finding the best way through, is surely the very essence of board leadership.

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