As parents and educators, we know there’s a balance when working with those who may depend upon us. We want to be their friends, but that’s not our only role. There is a boundary — the hardest one to find — between being a friend and being an effective role model and guide.
The same is true with Boards and governance. It’s not necessarily about being liked, it’s about being effective.
While my most recent experience is as a Trustee with the West Vancouver Board of Education, my comments are applicable to Boards in general. I also don’t claim to have answers nor have I conducted exhaustive research; these are personal reflections.
It may be important for Boards and the senior teams they work with to have their goals and objectives align, but this doesn’t always mean their interests are the same. So while mutual support and consideration are essential ingredients for long-term success, there has to be an acknowledgement that consensus is not the same as agreement. Opposition and conflict are not always signs of dysfunction and elements of both can lead to better decision-making because conformity and complacency, in my opinion, are greater dangers.
A quick Google search turned up this provocative article from the Harvard Business Review which points to weaknesses in our notions about teams and stresses the importance of asking questions. I always find it perplexing that we stress the importance of critical thinking skills in twenty-first century learning and yet have trouble with the actual application of such skills in the workplace. To me, a successful Board is one which makes its safe for questions to be asked (easy questions, tough questions, ridiculous questions, any kind of question) because that is a Board which values knowing over guessing, inquiry over a lack of curiousity, and due diligence over acceptance.
Perhaps the most challenging part of being on any Board today is the way in which information circulates. Correspondence is rarely two ways — it’s multi-directional — and the speed at which we communicate has accelerated. It’s so important to get a good grasp on how communications and correspondence will be managed, but it’s also critical, in my opinion, to recognize that managing the process of being responsive is not about shutting down voices. It then becomes an issue of how to set up an effective system which is timely, efficient, and allows for diversity in who speaks on what and when. The tendency, as we can see in federal and provincial politics, is to centralize the message and if you’re like me, you can see that it works, but at a cost to democratic representation.
Boards also need to know more than what they are told they need to know. As is true in education, it’s not about spoon feeding content, but about engagement and broadening horizons. It’s also important to remember who makes up a Board’s constituency. In a complex field such as education for example, it’s not just about the Trustees around the table nor the team in the School Board office nor the administration group in a school, it’s about all of these and it’s also about parents, students, employees, teachers, the community, and more.
It’s not easy being on a Board just as it’s not easy being a parent or an educator. And it’s never about finding the easy way of doing things.
It’s about recognizing boundaries and making sure they never turn into un-traversable moats.
Errare humanum est [To err is human]. – Anonymous: Latin
For to err in opinion, though it be not the part of wise men, is at least human. – Plutarch (46-120 C.E.)
I presume you’re mortal, and may err. – James Shirley (1596-1666)
To err is human, to forgive divine. – Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
Then gently scan your brother man,/ Still gentler sister woman;/ Though they may gang a kennin’ wrang. To step aside is human. – Robert Burns, Address to the Unco Guid 
“Address to the Unco Guid’ makes the point that it is this natural sympathy and compassion that is important in society: not self-righteous condemnation.” – Juliet Linden Bicket
I remembered Alexander Pope’s words this week as I watched events unfold in the BC provincial election. When I checked my copy of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations to verify them, the footnotes led me to other quotes on the same theme and to Google for the full text of the Burns poem where I found the comment by Bicket.
And despite these wise words, which span approximately 2,000 years of human history, it would seem that in our time the motto has become “to err is human and to forgive is impossible”.
Or maybe even more to the point, “to err is human and let’s make sure everyone’s mistakes are never forgotten”.
And given our rush to judge others on this principle, it seems to me that the greatest disincentive to running for public office has become the process of getting elected.
While this trend has been emerging over time, it seems to have bloomed with noxious fervour in this election.
We’re all on the lookout for “bozo eruptions”. That’s the term applied to the actions of candidates who slip up in real time, but everything has become fair game: whether a word that’s said today or over 20 years ago, whether a misstep now or one from long ago.
And I have to ask what added value, if any, is there in this “new” way of doing politics. Does it benefit voters? Does it allow society to progress? Does it ensure the health and vitality of our democratic institutions?
Because we have made perfection a condition of holding office and yet no one is perfect. It’s not human.
Because we have lost perspective. If anything from any point in our lives can be construed as a liability, then we lose the ability to distinguish between misdemeanors and serious crimes.
Because we have forgotten that living involves choices and that we sometimes make bad choices, particularly when we’re young. But we learn and those mistakes do not necessarily or automatically make us incapable, incompetent, or untrustworthy for life.
Because setting up impossible standards for conduct and behaviour lead to unreasonable controls being implemented to maintain power once it’s been secured.
And that’s why we have a parliament full of men and women commonly derided as trained seals.
We have parliaments and legislatures which we denigrate and political representatives whom we disrespect. We have governments, political parties, and candidates who are more focused on slander and defamation, on digging up the dirt, than they are on policy and good governance.
And that’s an unforgivable mistake.