Credible Board Leadership

Sections of this topic

    To bring about change directors should be comfortable with their role as leaders. They should also be comfortable with the traits that they must display in order to build credibility with their followers, both within the boardroom and beyond.

    In the definition of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner,[1] credibility is all about the way in which leaders earn the trust of their followers and about what followers demand as a necessary prerequisite to willingly following. Many directors have had successful executive careers before embarking on board pursuits. Leadership in an executive situation is often facilitated by authority or power. In the boardroom there is no such facilitation and the leadership skills must be honed to maximum effectiveness, especially if one director is attempting to change the thinking of the rest of the team.

    Few directors receive any additional leadership skills training after moving on from their executive roles and yet this is probably the career point when leadership is most needed.

    In Kouzes and Posner’s research over the last twenty years covering diverse organisations and geographic locations, they found four traits to be the key to credibility as a leader. If a director can demonstrate those traits then he or she is well on the way to leading the organisation towards the culture and actions that will satisfy his or her personal passion.

    Followers choose leaders who are honest, forward-looking, competent and inspiring (in that order of preference). This is a simple checklist for a director wishing to change the way the board addresses an issue. Is the change honestly in the best (even if long-term) interests of the organisation? Is the director acting honestly and in good faith in proposing the change? Has the director thought through the future implications of the proposed change? How can this forethought be demonstrated and communicated? What special skills make the director an authority on this issue? Skills from experience, such as suffering from a disease or being a helper of disadvantaged persons, are as valid as formal qualifications but it is important to let others know how the competence has been achieved. And finally; what outcome could be achieved that will inspire board members to follow your lead? What is in it for the organisation, for society and for them?

    It is also important to remember that leadership is personal. As Kouzes and Posner put it “If people don’t believe in the messenger, they won’t believe the message”. All board members should strive to demonstrate their personal and ongoing commitment to the organisation and its aims and to demonstrate their own honesty, forethought, and competence.

    Here is a model that I have found useful when analysing my own behaviour and impact in a board situation:

    Model for analysing leadership impact

    Thinking through what I am attempting to achieve and what I skills will be required to apply allows me to focus efficiently. Thinking about the behavioural preferences of the board members allows me to modify my own behaviour to give my message the best chance of being heard and understood. Understanding why I am seeking to achieve the outcome allows me to position this strategically and also to signal how important I believe the issue to be. Finally, thinking through my network of friends (aka unpaid mentors!) allows me to consider and attain additional information that may assist my cause.

    Leadership development is an important aspect of the director role, and not just something that is recommended for executives. All directors should review their own leadership skills from time to time and determine what and how to improve.

    What do you think?

    [1] Kouzes, J., and Posner, B., Credibility: How leaders gain it and lose it, why people demand it, Jossey-Bass, 2003

    Julie Garland-McLellan has been internationally acclaimed as a leading expert on board governance. See her website and LinkedIn profiles, and get her books Dilemmas, Dilemmas: Practical Case Studies for Company Directors and Presenting to Boards.