All A-Board!: How Personalities Affect Your Board

We have always found it a bit odd that discussions of board governance almost never include a discussion of the powerful effect of personality on the way the system functions. This classic article is an amusing romp through the painful absurdities caused by some of the more extreme “types” we find on our boards. But it has been decades since this was written by the indomitable Karl Mathiasen, do you have any “types” you would like to add?


It is an underlying assumption of this article that most of us want a working board and, if this is what we want, the personal qualities of board members are enormously important. Why?

A fully engaged, working board must faithfully struggle to form a body within which there are shared values, understanding, tolerance and mutual respect. It does not have the time to deal with those who come to the board without real commitment or are unwilling to learn about and follow the dynamics of that board.

Thus, as difficult as the task of identifying desirable personal qualities might seem at first glance, it remains an important and worthwhile task. My observations about some desirable and undesirable qualities for board members follow.

The most important quality a nominating committee should seek in a board member is commitment to the organization’s cause or purpose, or at least openness to that commitment—a demonstration of a potential for commitment, and evidence that the candidate shares the values of the organization.

What do these candidates do with their time, and what other causes or purposes do they support? Do they have a history of committing time and energy to an agency, are they faithful, and do they follow through? If an agency is dealing with social-change issues, other social-change organizations may offer prospective candidates.

People’s interests vary enormously, and different things turn them on. It is a common error to expect that a good board member in one organization will make an equally good board member in another organization—perhaps in moving from an arts organization to an action-oriented public interest group. Gather some other evidence of the candidate’s interests.

Common sense is unfortunately a rather rare commodity. But it can be found, and is sorely needed when board tempers flare, when the presentation of new ideas is upsetting, when strong positions are taken, or pressure for decisions mounts. People with common sense somehow know that nothing is as good as it seems; they sense that amid adamantly held and apparently opposite points of view, there is common, sensible ground, and they are instinctively aware that the need for haste and immediate action is always exaggerated.

Judgment relates to common sense, obviously, but it has more to do with how one proceeds as a board member. People with judgment understand how and when to raise issues. They know when to support the staff or the staff leader, and how and when to confront leadership without raising staff defenses more than is necessary or useful.

An important piece of information that nominating committees can seek is whether that person has been able to raise difficult issues in other situations, in a way that has been firm but helpful. That sort of person is what a board needs, rather than someone who enjoys the heady role of the adversary, one who is determined to win at any cost, or even one who is willing to be a “yes” man or woman.

Another desirable quality is found in those people who really like working in group situations—those who actively enjoy helping a group come to a good conclusion.

Let’s face it, we all have friends who are fine, bright people and yet have very little tolerance for any sort of group process. Often they ridicule group decision-making, feeling that it reaches the lowest common denominator, rather than the best decision. Again, one way of considering whether people have this quality is to see what they do in their lives. Do they often involve themselves in group situations? Are they members of other working organizations and have they been members—successful members—of other boards? What do others think of them in terms of their capacity to work in group situations?

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A fourth quality is centeredness. People who are centered and self-aware have come to some reasonable acceptance of who they are. They are not joining a board solely to prove something, or simply as a way of gaining recognition.

This is not to say that people should not join a board out of self-interest. Quite to the contrary, while a good board member must be committed to the organization’s interests, the best board members often have personal goals that they hope will be furthered in part through their board service.

At a minimum, most people who serve on a board believe that their own standing in the community will be improved. What is difficult for a board to bear, however, is a person who is so self-important—or perhaps so insecure—that every question requires an answer, every remark requires a riposte, and all situations require the wisdom that only that board member can impart.

Nominating committees will need to ask questions about how that board member is perceived by others. Does that person seek to be heard and acknowledged, or is he or she able to listen to others, speaking only when a genuine contribution can be made?

Centered people often have the courage to raise the hard questions, the dumb questions, and to risk. They will say things that others with less courage or self-acceptance might not be willing to say. These people often reassure weaker board members by their limited use of power, and frequently provide much of the cement that binds a board together.

People who have this quality are open to new ideas. They manifest in all that they do—in their career paths and their community endeavors—that they are not stuck, that they quest for what might work, and what might help. They are not unreasonably angry at the changes in our society, hoping only to go back to the “good old days.” They do not hold on for dear life to what is, or what they dream must have been, but demonstrate a keen interest in going forward in the face of upheaval and uncertainty. They are also wise enough to know that the future offers choices—often difficult choices—and do not insist that one particular approach is the only path an organization can take.

I’m vividly reminded of a woman who has devoted 40 years of effort to the issue of peace. After describing her work, she said, “We’ve lost every significant battle for 40 years. The masses of armaments accumulate and the danger of nuclear holocaust increases.” Still, she is ready to go again, and seeks new ideas and possibilities that can serve as tools for peace.
People like this, people who are excited by the possibilities of life, are assets to a board. They can be life-giving—not only to the board, but to the whole organization.

This last quality may seem idiosyncratic or frivolous, but it is no less central than the other qualities discussed above. Having a sense of humor does not imply that a person must be humorous, but it does suggest that if board members do not have modest vestiges of humor, board work can become irritating, arduous, boring and unrewarding.

Boards of directors do odd and perplexing things. In response, one can become annoyed or one can adopt a more philosophical stance, and a sense of humor helps. A tolerance for the strange and wonderful things people do in groups is enormously important, particularly for caring and committed board members. It is, after all, better to laugh than to cry.

A second value provided by those who have a sense of humor is the capacity to relax and not take themselves too seriously. Board members rarely win or carry their points, and will more than likely have to compromise or adjust to the emerging consensus. People who see the humor in a situation, and those who can perceive the possible absurdities in their own positions, are generally more satisfied—and satisfying—board members. They often make the most of their points or positions as well.

Of course, one may say, you will never be able to find people for your board like those described. Is your organization not good enough to attract such people? Or have you simply not taken the task seriously enough, and not devoted enough energy to the job?

Years of experience in the boardroom, coupled with a persistent, puzzling sense of concern, have led me to try to identify several kinds of people who prove to be unhelpful in the boardroom or, worse, both frustrating to board members and disruptive of the board’s work.

This is an old rubric derived from an Ethel Merman song, about a person who is only able to sing one note. Unfortunately, Johnny One-Note is seen only too often in nonprofit boardrooms, raising one particular concern meeting after meeting, sometimes relevantly, but most often irrelevantly. The issue or concern has become the focus of that person’s life, and so dominates his or her existence that it must be drawn into every discussion at the slightest provocation—or even without provocation. The issue itself may indeed be legitimate and important (special education, healthcare for the elderly, affirmative action, environmental preservation, etc.), but it has become an obsession.

Board members don’t know how to respond, or how to incorporate that person’s views, and often end up feeling both irritated and guilty. It takes a skilled chair to acknowledge this individual, and then to restart the discussion that has been interrupted. Boards need people who will venture beyond single compelling concerns and join with fellow board members in determining what is best for the whole organization.

Every community has a distinguished panel of well-known board-sitters and every board aspires to bring these people to its organization. Yet for all of their allure, they are usually so committed to other activities that they will do little for a working board.

Somehow we are so dazzled by these people that we all miss those who are competent, potentially open to commitment, and anxious to serve their community. They are next year’s movers and shakers, and are worth seeking out. Most often, they make better board members for the kinds of organizations we serve than those who are community stars.

“It is my job to raise issues that will not otherwise be considered by this board as it rushes to achieve consensus,” says the devil’s advocate. Self-appointed, and a bit sanctimonious, this person enjoys pulling the board back, insisting that each issue be carefully dissected for hidden pitfalls and “what ifs.”

Boards do need to ponder carefully what course they choose to take, and that is hard work. But it is presumptuous—not to say annoying—for one person to assume that role for the board. It demeans the capacity and the credibility of other board members and retards the work of the whole board. Such people are easy to spot in conversations, and often actually offer themselves to board nominating committees as devil’s advocates. Beware!

Boards are often disabled by having one among them who is regarded with such respect or awe that other board members are reluctant to speak their minds. Intentionally or unintentionally, these people exude such authority that board meetings can become little more than monologues. Policies are not thoroughly and usefully thought out, but are pretty much preordained.

A board either needs to aim to have a number of authority figures—preferably of differing points of view—or decide that it can do well enough without any. Those who are accustomed to leading find it hard not to run things, and thus tend to dominate meetings.

There must be a much more genteel term that describes this person but, after several months’ thought, none has come to mind. Perhaps little needs to be said about the people who somehow seem to misunderstand the role of a board member. They are happiest when the discussions at board meetings stimulate them to propose a tangential—or even farther out—idea about what the organization might do. They tend to be stimulated rather frequently, and their ideas usually don’t fit in well, or at all, with where the organization is going. Undaunted, they bask in their own sense of creativity and frequently lead the board astray.

A companion characteristic of these off-the-wall artists is a tendency to do nothing or virtually nothing between board meetings. The feeling of having been so immensely creative at the last board meeting often appears to have exhausted their capacities until the next meeting.

These two lists are undoubtedly incomplete, and experienced board members could surely add to them. But the central point is this: since most of us recognize the desirability and undesirability of the people described above as board members, it’s well worth the effort to avoid those who are truly unsuited and uncomfortable with board work, and to seek out those who understand, respect, and enjoy working with others.


This is article is excerpted from Board-membering. Reprinted with permission. Copyright 1986, Management Assistance Group. The entire article is located at their Web site.

Karl Mathiasen is one of the nation’s leading experts on board/staff dynamics and board development, and co-founded the Management Assistance Group (MAG) more than 25 years ago. Based in Washington, D.C., MAG is a nonprofit that helps social justice organizations to plan strategically and to address organizational challenges in areas such as management, board and staff development, fundraising, and adjustments to change and growth. Mathiasen has served on more than 35 nonprofit boards of directors.