WWIF #10 The Need for a New Prescription

What if we quit expecting all board members to be visionary?

I've been in a few conversations recently where staff members were deeply lamenting the perceived lack of vision from their boards.  Comments include:
  • They just get themselves lost in the weeds too much.
  • They are so analytical that everything has to be backed up by data.
  • They don't seem to have any real interest in thinking about the distant future.
  • They seem driven be details
Volumes have been written about different governance models, so I'm not going to rehash those ideas or their implications for visionary boards here. 

Certainly some individuals are predisposed to the more right-brain, intuitive, and creative thinking we associate with visionary ideas.  And certainly some groups seem to more quickly display the trust and conversational capacity that produce innovative insights to challenging situations.  And though we should try to engage individuals who possess these innate gifts into board service, the likely reality is that our volunteer leaders visionary capacity will always vary widely.

So instead of lamenting what we don't have, let's spend more time thinking about the "prescriptions" that each individual needs (and the board or committee in its entirety) to produce more visionary thinking with 20-20 clarity.  Let's quit complaining about people using their natural gifts and figure out how to manage around their shortcomings (ala Gallup thinking) by using processes that effectively utilize their analytical powers to produce more visionary results.  Here are a few easy-to-apply possibilities:
  • Expose individuals to alternative thinking through field trips to more visionary efforts.  Seeing a hard to believe idea in action is very different than talking about it in the abstract.
  • Expand individuals' sense of what's possible through shared examples from articles and research.
  • When individuals speak at a micro level, invite them to connect their comment to a more macro concept; i.e., "Bob, what's the broader concept behind the specific idea you shared?"  or "Susan, could you connect your thought to one of our strategic goals and comment on how it applies?"  If you think of this is terms of an outline, when someone speak at the level of a capital letter, invite them to jump up and/or connect their thinking to the Roman numeral, etc.
  • Use scenario thinking to engage individuals in thoughtful consideration of alternative futures.
  • Help reframe and rephrase strategic questions posed with restrictive or narrow language into a form that invites more expansive thinking.
  • Present visionary ideas with more details so individuals can see strong connections between the ideas, the needs they address, the tactics their implementation will require, and the results they should achieve.
  • Discuss the topic of visionary thinking with your volunteer leaders, how they see their own capabilities in relation to it, and what support they could use to help produce more innovative results.
These suggestions are not ground-breaking, nor do they need to be.  What's important is that we deal with the reality that we have in front of us.  More becomes possible if you let go of the assumption that every board member ... or even a board as an entity ... will be by default, visionary.

Note:  Wednesday What If is a weekly feature applying the "what if" mindset associated with abductive reasoning or logic in an effort to stretch our thinking about what is desirable and very frequently, quite doable.


Arik Johnson said...

Hi Jeff,

I've been reading your blog for many years now but never felt moved to comment until now as I feel pretty strongly that volunteer boards of professional societies really need to have visionary leadership at the top, as well as, be made attractive to the innate leaders in the community for that kind of service.

Not that other volunteers who wouldn't consider themselves high on the trait-spectrum of leadership or vision shouldn't serve; I would simply suggest that, there are volunteer roles for them as well outside of the board. After having served on nominating committees for non-profit board elections a few times now, my sole criteria for board service has evolved into performing the following litmus test: anyone who runs for a board seat should also be able and prepared to serve as president of that board if called upon or they shouldn't be approved to run.

Now, I realize that thins the candidate ranks significantly ... however, it also elevates board service to where it should be in the eyes of membership - a serious commitment with serious prestige potential and visionary leadership opportunity.

My argument hinges on the fact that we've come to expect so LITTLE from boards today that we can expect to attract mediocre candidates to agree to run. This malaise needs to change or these institutions will simply fade away.

Finally, we met several years ago when you facilitated a workshop for the organization I was serving on the board of at the time. In the years since, this org has found itself in trouble more than a couple of times but not because of tactical missteps.

Rather, the org in question failed to position itself in its field correctly and the result was gradual irrelevance as they worried about getting the next irrelevant publication out the door that would eventually go on to sell a hundred copies to nobody in particular.

I would say that only visionary leaders can avoid the kinds of strategic mistakes that plague professional societies today.

The enemy is mediocrity not ambition.

Jeffrey Cufaude said...


I don't disagree with you at all about the need for visionary leadership. I just believe that in too many organizations people are not doing enough to cultivate the visionary capacity of the leaders they have, instead choosing to lament what they are missing.

It's not an either/or; it's an AND. We aren't always going to attract the people who meet your litmus test, so do we just then "wait them out"? That's what some groups actually try to do. That is foolhardy. Instead we have to provide the support that will broaden the visionary capabilities of the leaders we have while still looking for those more naturally gifted in that regard.