My friend Bill Simmer is famous for his many colorful and sometimes painfully honest quotes. The phrase “fierce conversations” is one of those. He employs that quote to remind us that finding common ground that truly advances the purposes of an organization will, of necessity, require honest exploration of divergent ideas about how best to resolve contentious issues. It is a clearly biblical idea of which the author of Proverbs reminds us when he writes, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). It is, however, a process that can be uncomfortable.
Indeed, as Max De Pree reminds us, “One of the myths of volunteer board work is that you see only fine, well-motivated people who agree on what needs to be done, when to do it, and how to do it” (2001). He then goes on to remind us of the reality every leadership team or board faces. “Any diligent board” (and I would add leadership team) “suffers certain tensions.… Good people disagree, do a little politicking, try to make decisions in the bathroom (the worst form of exclusion), and come to meetings totally unprepared.”
That is a reality that nearly everyone who has served on or under a board has experienced multiple times. As John Carver has noted, “the central interpersonal challenge to the board” is “to convert divergent views into a single official view” (1997). That is never easy to accomplish, especially as it is the job of the chair of the board to “assertively pursue differing viewpoints.” Unfortunately, rather than insisting that board meetings become “a forum of churning debate and exposure,” the tendency is to “make board meetings smooth and ‘boardly,’” which, as Carver so aptly points out, “cheats the dynamic opportunities in governance.”
As Carver further observes, “requiring an uncontested total agreement to move is a prescription for either mediocrity or pretense.” I couldn’t agree more. The goal of any decision-making process shouldn’t simply be consensus—especially when consensus is achieved by artificially smoothing over differences of opinion. Rather, “honest argument is merely a process of mutually picking the beams and motes out of each other’s eyes so both can see clearly” (Eppler 2004).
Unfortunately “honest argument” is not something many Christian school boards are equipped to achieve. Instead, boards typically seek the artificial harmony that tends to produce one of two divergent outcomes: the mediocrity and pretense of which Carver speaks; or a pressure cooker environment that often leads to explosive behavior and, eventually, permanent harm to the school.
Here are seven tactics school boards and school leaders can incorporate into any decision-making process when things get tense:
1. Hit Pause
Sometimes the simplest thing to do when things are getting out of hand is to acknowledge that the temperature in the room has risen past what is healthy. That is typically the job of the board chair, but anyone in the room should feel free to say something like, “Hey folks, I think that we have been generating way too much heat and way too little light in this discussion. Perhaps our best course of action is to table our discussion until our next meeting.” If the issue before you is one that must be resolved within a very limited time frame, then it may be necessary to schedule another meeting within a brief period of time. You must remember, however, that nothing crucial to the school should ever be decided during a heated meeting.
2. Create Clarity
Clarity is crucial to organizational health because clarity makes alignment within the organization possible. As Patrick Lencioni notes, “alignment is about creating so much clarity that there is as little room as possible for confusion, disorder, and infighting to set in” (2012).
Clarity requires two things. First of all, the board must ensure that there are specific answers to the following questions:
- Why do we exist—what is our purpose?
- What do we do—what is our mission?
- How will we behave—what are our core values and beliefs?
- Whom do we hope to impact—who is our customer?
- What is most important right now—what are our essential new steps?
- Who must do what—what is the proper role for the board to play?
Clarity also requires that we have the right information in hand. That requires research. Anecdotal evidence will not suffice, since amassing anecdotes often equates to pooling ignorance. With the proper kind of information in hand—gathered systematically and from multiple stakeholders—making an appropriate decision is much easier.
3. Determine to Dig a Little
After taking the above tactics, I would suggest you employ an exercise I have used on numerous occasions. You will need a large white board and markers (definitely a low tech approach). In the center of the board write a brief phrase or sentence that answers one of these questions:
- What is the problem we are trying to solve?
- What is the outcome we are hoping to achieve?
Once there is agreement on the wording of that phrase or sentence, create two columns: one on the right side of the board, one on the left. In the left column, list every possible option that you could consider that might allow you to solve your problem or achieve your desired outcome. Since this is a brainstorming exercise, there is no editorializing allowed: every idea makes it to the board. In the right column, jot down every constraint that you face in trying to solve your problem or accomplish your desired outcome.
If, during this conversation, the temperature in the room begins to rise again, do the following: near the bottom of the board on the left side, write the word “Assumptions.” On the right side of the board, write the word “Fears.” Get everyone to respond to those two words. What do you fear in this situation? What assumptions are shaping your thoughts? When you get everyone to publicly articulate their assumptions and fears, it opens eyes and helps people see what is causing so much tension in the room. Most of the time you will be able to identify whether the constraints you have identified are really constraints or actually represent people’s fears and/or assumptions.
4. Create a Mini Task Force
If you still can’t find a place to agree, create a task force comprised of two individuals, one from each side of the argument. Their assignment: take all the pertinent information identified so far and come up with a way forward—by switching sides.
In The Wright Way (2004), Mark Eppler gives us some insight into how the Wright brothers became such remarkable problem solvers: “In the evening, after finishing their meal, the boys would remain at the table. Their father would introduce a topic, which the brothers were ‘encouraged’ to debate. The debates, which often grew contentious, were allowed to continue as long as they were not disrespectful (a key concept). After a period of time, the father would instruct his sons to change sides. Wilbur was required to defend Orville’s position, and vice
versa.” That is a good exercise for any board or leadership team that has reached a seeming impasse.
5. Invite a Fresh Set of Eyes
Hopefully after employing these tactics you will have reached agreement on how to move ahead. On occasion, however, that will not be the case. It may be necessary to identify someone who can come in for a board meeting to provide a bit of perspective. That person can often ask the kinds of tough questions that a board is reluctant to ask themselves. They can also probe a bit more into those fears and assumptions. Equally important, they can bring a different set of experiences, insights, and information to the conversation.
6. Be Willing to Make the Tough Call
When I work with school boards, I try to address the question of how to identify and recruit new board members. For the most part I focus on positive traits. There is, however, one negative quality that I beg boards to avoid. The author of Proverbs describes that quality in the following way.
“Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire;
He breaks out against all sound judgment.
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.
Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty,
But humility comes before honor.
If one gives an answer before he hears,
It is his folly and shame.”
Proverbs 18:1–2, 12–13 (ESV)
The writer highlights a very different attitude when he writes, “An intelligent heart acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge” (Proverbs 18:15, ESV). It is the second quality that we should seek in our board and team members. The first we must avoid at all cost. Such people will cause you continuous grief until you get them “off of the bus.”
7. Learn to Master Conflict
As Patrick Lencioni declares, “Contrary to popular wisdom and behavior, conflict is not a bad thing for a team. In fact, the fear of conflict is almost always a sign of problems” (2012). This is a huge topic, way beyond the scope of this post. Learning to engage in constructive conflict is essential to the health of any organization. To help you along the way I would suggest two resources.
- The Wright Way: 7 Problem Solving Principles from the Wright Brothers That Can Make Your Business Soar by Mark Eppler
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni
While there are dozens of excellent books on the purpose and role of a board, they all agree on one area: the board, as a board, must always in public speak with one voice. In one of the classic books on board practice, Serving God on the Christian School Board, we find the following to which every board member must pay careful attention.
God hates disunity because it discredits the Gospel and diminishes our ability to fulfill His calling in our lives (see John 17:20–23). Therefore we face a genuine challenge. The board and leadership team at a Christian school must learn to engage in constructive conflict, which is necessary if the school is to mature and become all that God would have it become. We must, however, learn to engage in “fierce conversations” in a way that allows us to honor the one who has called us to the great task of Christian schooling.
Carver, J. 1997. Planning Better Board Meetings: The Carver Guide Series on Effective Board Governance. Josey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
De Pree, M. 2001. Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Eppler, M. 2004. The Wright Way: 7 Problem-Solving Principles from the Wright Brothers That Can Make Your Business Soar. AMACOM: New York.
Lencioni, P. 2012. The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business. Josey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
Lencioni, P. 2002. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. Josey-Bass: San Francisco, CA.
How can you respond to this post?
- If you are a school leader, share this blog post with your board chair. In the spirit of optimizing board function, consider making it a discussion item for the next school board meeting.
- Have the school leader and board members commit to a book study on problem-solving, team dynamics, conflict management, or board health. The references listed in this blog post may provide a useful resource to this end.
About the Author
As President of The Barnabas Group, Inc., Dr. Alan Pue draws on an extensive background in Christian school leadership to provide strategic planning, leadership development, and governance improvement assistance to Christian school leaders and boards. He is the author of two books, numerous articles and book reviews and is the proud grandfather of seven beautiful granddaughters. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.