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CEO-Centrism Marches On

On a Personal Note

By John CarverMarch 22, 2013 | Print
ONE OF THE contributions of Policy Governance to our mind-set about board leadership is providing an escape from accountability destroying CEO-centrism. Viewing organizational leadership as grounded in management rather than governance is evident on every side. The U.S. Congress, the press, and executives themselves act as if CEOs are the focal point of corporate authority and accountability, frequently showing no understanding that— with even a modicum of appreciation of agency theory—nothing can unfold by and under executives that the board has not caused or allowed. The nonprofit world is no better, acting often as if the board is just another resource for the CEO to tap, just another department for the CEO to manage, or just another headache for the CEO to outmaneuver.

Our mail in late March brought a stark reminder. The Washington-based Chronicle of Philanthropy touted a new publication, “The Chronicle Board Report for Nonprofit Board Members and Their Executive Directors.” It addresses executive directors’ woes, such as feeling “burned out from shouldering too much of the fund-raising burden” and “stymied by boards that spend hours questioning small financial details.” The advertisement promises (with asterisks in the original) to show executive directors:

**How you (the executive director) can involve your board members in raising money. **How you can deploy their talents in support of your organizations. **How you can tap their knowledge and gain from their experience. **How you can get everyone on the same page, playing their role, acting in unison. **How you can unleash their full potential to help you attract more volunteers.” And finally:

In short, we’ll show you how you can inform and inspire your members in ways that multiply your efforts and free you to lead without worry.

You can’t read material like this without getting the idea that the board exists for the executive director rather than the other way around. Readers proficient in Policy Governance can’t help but see reflected in such language the fundamental flaws of contemporary governance. The problem isn’t even subtle; it dazzles like a blinking red warning light. If ubiquitous reinforcement of poor governance came only from those who have an excuse for not understanding, it would not be as dismaying. But it comes—as in this case—from recognized authorities. My earliest writings cited Peter Drucker (boards “do not function”), James Gillies (“Boards [have been] largely irrelevant”), E. E. Smith (“We have so neglected this most vital area”), and many others. Boards were said to be the least developed elements in enterprise. We are still living in that era. There is still much to be done.

This 104th issue of Board Leadership opens with an article in which I explain why state- or province-mandated tests of “student achievement” are an inappropriate measure of local school board effectiveness. In a related article, Miriam considers the familiar scenario in which a school board asks for public input on means-related minutiae, in order to have the stamp of public approval, rather than ask for input on the ends questions that are of legitimate public concern. In another article, I distinguish Policy Governance policies from those bearing some superficial resemblance. I answer two frequently asked questions: “Why is it wrong to say that the board makes ends decisions and the staff means decisions?” and “In Policy Governance writings and presentations, it is frequently said that the CEO should not be a voting board member. So why isn’t that included as a Policy Governance principle?” This issue’s Consider This quote comes from Stephen R. Covey.

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