It’s often said that the most important relationship in any independent school is the one between the board chair and the head. I agree. And yet the traditional ground rules that are supposed to provide structure to this relationship seem wholly inadequate for helping a head be successful. Reminding the board chair of the proverbial line between governance and administration after she raises for the third time widespread concern about the upper school director seems an anemic response. Its impotence points to the necessity of taking a different path. More specifically for heads of school, if you want your relationship with your respective board chairs to be as productive as possible, put on your dance shoes, seek your inner Fred Astaire, and when you look at your board chair, think Ginger Rogers. Learn how to dance… with a partner.
Truth be told, I know very little about dancing, but I know that a good result is often the product of collaboration, a willingness to lead or follow, adjustments based on circumstances, and principles that may or may not align with “best practices” but are discovered as a result of practice. What head and board chair do together is greater than what each does separately. The power to add value to the school lies more in the elements that define the unique partnership between the head and her board chair and less in the strictures from on high that too often are used to justify intractable positions. In short, there are times when heads and board chairs will break the rules; that’s okay. The rules exist to help the relationship get started; they are not a substitute for understanding each other, adjusting to circumstances and styles, using emotional intelligence, reading each other’s moods, and protecting one another from public embarrassment. This last point is particularly important; it is better for a head to lose on a particular issue than to unwittingly place the chair in a position to be embarrassed. In fact, a major consideration for any head is to look down the road and search for potential potholes that may put the chair in a bad light. The success of the head is tied intimately to the success of the board chair. This is what good dancing is all about.
Let’s look at a recent example. Because of the financial uncertainty produced by COVID-19, one school gave serious consideration to an application for PPP funds as part of the CARES ACT. The board chair thought taking the money made sense and wanted to vet the idea with the finance committee and the executive committee and then present a proposal to the full board of trustees. The process was in keeping with how the board had conducted business in the past with the smaller committees doing the heavy lifting and the full board typically giving its stamp of approval. However, the head felt that receiving aid from the federal government was too big of an issue not to have a full and transparent discussion among all trustees with opportunities for each of them to ask questions. In truth, he listened to the many experts from regional and national organizations who warned of the potential pitfalls of taking money from the government and was understandably nervous. What soon became evident was that the issue at hand, and more specifically, the different outcomes both the chair and the head desired, had become more important than the dance. The partnership took a backseat to winning. Both approaches had merit; both could easily be justified, but these approaches became proxies for positions quickly staked out. Head and chair stopped dancing.
Don’t get me wrong—I subscribe to many of the ground rules that define board-head relationships. For instance, the proverbial line between administration and governance makes sense to me. But I suspect that this line is crossed many times, and for a head to use it as a shield to prevent trustees from flexing their muscles seems ridiculous. Rules are not a substitute for relationships. “Best practices” can’t replace trust. Board training is rarely a panacea. To be sure, developing trust may be difficult, even impossible. I know of one new head who had an autocratic board chair who clearly flexed his muscles to inappropriately influence decisions. The head could have easily stood his ground, cited the Maginot Line, and refused to budge. And he would have been right to do so. But this wise head would rather win than be right. As difficult as the board chair was to deal with, this head kept the dance going, recognizing when to occasionally stand firm and when to compromise, often breaking “the rules of good governance” in doing so. He survived this first board chair and a few years later, completed a major capital campaign that raised over $50 million, a transformative moment in the school’s history.
So new heads, indeed, learn the principles of good governance; provide opportunities for your board to receive training; help your trustees learn and grow, but at the same time, be realistic. And never stop dancing.