The Board of Directors

View from an airplane window at the wings and flying over a scenic landscape of green hills and rivers

This is a photograph of my ancestors taken in 1919. It is the only snapshot of its kind in my family–the Polish immigrant grandparents with their children and their grandchildren. In this case, that is my great-great grandmother and grandfather in the middle of the photo. Of the subjects in this photograph, there is only one living relative, my dear great Uncle Bernie (now in his nineties; sitting third from the right in the front row), and there are hundreds of their descendants scattered from the east coast to the west coast with a large population living in Chicago and in Detroit. This is where it all began!

Over the winter holiday, I spent a lot of time playing with my very cool family tree software package and delighting myself in my genealogy hobby. I am the keeper of the family photos and my uncle and I have been working on completing the family tree for a couple of years. One evening, while talking about old family photos and stories, my son sweetly asked, “Is Uncle Bernie the President of the family?” Now that’s an idea! So, I played with it for a bit and indeed, Uncle Bernie is the President of the family…he is the President of the Board of Directors!

Being President of the Board, or of the family, is about leadership. It is about reminding people of the stated mission of the group and holding them accountable for their role in meeting the mission. Being the leader of the group is about nurturing, motivating, acknowledging, and modeling. There is something especially beautiful about Uncle Bernie and his leadership; he is eager to share stories and the family history, ensuring continuity for generations to come. There is delegation of tasks and relying upon one another and asking for help. There is teamwork. There is an adaptation to change, to crisis, to aging, to life. There is a meaningful structure and useful hierarchy that serve to remind us of wisdom and experience. There is a plan for succession from one generation to the next.

There is a very exciting and interesting parallel between family and boards of directors, the patriarch of a family group and the President of a board of volunteers. I could go on and on with what I know about my family and what I know about boards. But probably the most important part of the comparison is the mission that focuses group effort. In my extended family, there is a lot of talk about “the Friedman family” and “Ethel” (my great grandmother) and how being together is essential and how family is everything. There is a pretty clear stated purpose. Boards have a similar focus point for gathering, for service, for impact. There is a deep feeling of love and meaning when my family stands fully in its capacity to connect and often,we don’t and the family feels adrift. And the same is true for boards of directors. There is a profound feeling of impact when the board stands fully in its capacity to lead and to govern. When it does not, the organization it governs will be adrift (as is so often the case).

When families and boards of directors feel adrift, it is useful to remember your roots, recall your history, reconnect with the intent of the original leaders/founders and their values. Sometimes it is a focused look backward that will help to move forward. When I look at the photograph of my family, I feel a tremendous connection to something bigger than myself. I get a renewed sense of purpose and I have a framework for sorting out what is important to share for future generations.

When I teach volunteers to be more skillful board members I will often talk about how today, they will occupy a role on a board that is the same board going back to the beginning of the organization. Today, a leader on the board of a 100-year-old organization is serving with the hundreds of people who have populated that board from the beginning. There is huge wisdom and experience here. I know the same to be true of my relationship to my extended family.

What do you notice about how the founder of your organization is still present? How is his/her influence still felt, honored, guiding your board? What do you notice about the history of your organization and how it is leveraged today? What does leadership transition look like in your group? When you look back into your history, what are you finding and what will you import to your future?

View from an airplane window at the wings and flying over a scenic landscape of green hills and rivers
Much love to the President of the Board of Directors of the Friedman family, my Uncle Bernie (and his wife, Aunt Selma). And much luck to the President of your Board of Directors.


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