The Best and Worst of Board Chairs

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Most experienced observers of nonprofit governance agree that board chairs can have considerable influence on board operations. But not much research focuses on the critical position of board chairmanship and the factors that determine its potential for positive or negative impact.

To better understand how board chairs affect their organizations, we completed two phases of a research project (and have plans for a third). In 2006 we undertook the first phase of this pilot study, conducting in-depth interviews with 21 respondents in Seattle, Washington, and in Victoria, British Columbia. Respondents were split nearly evenly between experienced nonprofit board members and CEOs. In 2007 we launched the project’s second phase, which consisted of an online survey of 195 nonprofit leaders representing a variety of perspectives (including those of board chairs, board members, CEOs, staff service volunteers, and stakeholders) from across the United States and Canada to verify the results of the study.

Our research identifies three groups on which board chairs have influence: (1) other board members; (2) CEOs and management teams; and (3) external stakeholders, such as funders, regulators, and clients. Although our exploratory research doesn’t touch on this, we have developed a framework that outlines the factors that might shape the behavior of chairs, such as background (i.e., age, gender, education, and previous leadership experience); characteristics of other members in the relationship, such as the CEO; and characteristics of the organization (such as the age, mission, and culture). The organization’s larger environment—such as economic and political factors, the organization’s climate of competitiveness or cooperativeness, and so on—can also affect board chair behavior.

Phase-One Findings

Our preliminary research findings suggest that there is considerable commonality among those qualities respondents perceive as hallmarks of effective and ineffective chairs. Respondents perceive highly effective chairs as assets to their organization. Conversely, they view ineffective chairs as problematic for boards and the organization as a whole. The table on pages 26-27 features some of these common characteristics.

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Findings from the Online Survey

In terms of the personal qualities of exceptional board chairs, the findings of the online survey mirror first-phase findings. Trustworthiness, intelligence, and good listening skills are the highest-rated qualities for board chairs; being dictatorial, critical, and motivated by self-interest are the lowest-rated qualities.

With the benefit of a larger database, we used factor analysis to identify which characteristics of effective and ineffective chairs hang together. Our analysis yielded five clusters of effective board chair leadership characteristics and one cluster of qualities common to ineffective chairs.

  1. Relationship competencies:
    • Is flexible
    • Is comfortable with people of all types
    • Is nonjudgmental
    • Has strong listening skills
    • Has a calm demeanor
    • Has a friendly persona
    • Is humble
  2. Commitment and action competencies:
    • Has a strong commitment to the organization
    • Has a clear commitment to getting things done
    • Uses a proactive approach
    • Devotes time to the organization
  3. Analytic skill competencies:
    • Can see the big picture
    • Can clarify and resolve issues
    • Can handle contentious issues
  4. “Willingness to create” competencies:
    • Has high intelligence
    • Is an innovative thinker
    • Has confidence
  5. Ability-to-influence competencies:
    • Has connections and influence with key people
    • Uses connections to advance the organization

The two lowest-rated characteristics of board chairs were combined to form one indicator of chair ineffectiveness, which we call “dominating behavior”:

  • Is dictatorial and domineering
  • Pursues a self-serving agenda rather than contributing to an organization’s well-being

Experience Base of Respondents to the Study

Respondents in the first set of 21 interviews had a minimum of five years of experience in their role and had worked with at least three board chairs. These respondents came from a diverse group of organizations in terms of organizational mission, budget size, staff size, and dependence on volunteers. In our subsequent online survey of 195 nonprofit members in the United States and Canada, a majority of survey respondents reported they had interacted with at least three different board chairs.


This article highlights the characteristics of highly effective and highly ineffective board chairs as perceived by those who work with them. The behavioral and personality characteristics of highly effective chairs are remarkably similar among the various groups of respondents to the online survey.

Respondents highlight the same qualities and skills of effective chairs as those the literature cites as desirable characteristics of nonprofit leaders in general. Our findings are also consistent with several leadership theories. Ralph Stogdill, for example, suggests that effective leaders are charismatic, cooperative, and sociable and know how to influence others, while Shelley Kirkpatrick and Edwin Locke cite cognitive ability, motivation, and confidence as essential leadership qualities.

The literature also cites the following characteristics of effective leaders, which parallel our findings:

  • Being goal directed
  • Having emotional maturity, self-, and social awareness (also known as “emotional intelligence”)
  • Being creative, flexible, and persistent
  • Being committed and independent-minded and understanding the big picture; being compassionate and proactive (also known as “spiritual intelligence”)

Our findings are also consistent with the findings of Richard Leblanc and James Gillies, who conclude from a 2005 study of 39 corporate boards and interviews with 194 board members that there are two types of board chairs. The first, which the authors refer to as “conductors,” are effective managers because they

[R]elate very well to management, have a keen interest in good governance and serve as the hub of all-important board activity. They understand group and individual dynamics and possess remarkable leadership skills, both inside and outside the boardroom. They relate exceptionally well to the CEO (if a nonexecutive chair), committee chairs and other directors. They lead the setting of the agenda, run meetings effectively, moderate discussion appropriately, manage dissent, work towards consensus and, most importantly, set the tone and culture for effective corporate governance.

The second type, known as “caretakers,” are ineffective because they either exert too much influence or not enough.

So What? The Practical Implications

The aim of our research was to learn more about the characteristics of outstanding board chair leadership. But we can also draw some conclusions about how a nonprofit organization can better select highly effective chairs.

The most important step is to develop a position description for the chair’s role. This should include specific responsibilities of the position vis-à-vis (a) the board, both as individuals and as a group during formal meetings; (b) the CEO and other members of the management team; and (c) external stakeholders. The results of our research can serve as a foundation for the elements these statements should contain.

A position description should also include the qualifications for the job, such as the required level of knowledge about the organization as well as the desired leadership characteristics and interpersonal skills. Again, the results of our research provide some guidelines on the kind of person one should look for.

One of the best ways to develop qualified board members for promotion to the chair position is by establishing a clear system of succession. Future chairs would be appointed to the position of chair elect or vice chair. The understanding would be that the person holding such a position would move into the chair position within a year or two. Those in such roles can then consciously understudy the chair role.

Finally, it is possible to improve the chances of selecting top-notch chairs if boards are willing to carry out formal evaluations of their own performance. In such a process, members can be asked, “Which board member do you think has the greatest potential as a future chairperson, and why?”

In short, the secret to consistently appointing highly effective board chairs lies in making the process more formal and thoughtful by identifying the kind of person you want and by making a conscious effort to find and develop that person for the role.



Yvonne Harrison is a Assistant Professor in the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy, University at Albany, SUNY. Vic Murray is an adjunct professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

  • Diane Tilstra

    This is a timely article for me. It confirms my basic suspicions about the current board chair of a Foundation that I serve. In board meetings, this chairperson has “dictated” that the board meetings will only last for one hour (regardless of the amount of work needed to be done), has a penchant for chastizing me if I speak too long in front of the members of the board in a rude, condescending way. It sends a definite message to other board members that they, too, will sustain his wrath if they say anything. So what do we have? A dictator and siilent minions. No one steps up to any plate except one board member who is loud and antagonistic which also adds to the dysfunctionality. I inherited the group and I am working to bring new members on to the board but I am very concerned about what will happen to new board members who experience the dictatorship.

  • chairwoman

    This article is outstanding in that so little is written about the true impact of the Chair’s role and the capacity to build or stifle an organisation. The role is so often underutilised, with people who do not see themselves as “leaders” but someone to chair a monthly meeting! There’s the thought leadership and coaching, pushing, exploring and overall embrace of the agency’s mission that needs to be paramount. Board members act in accordance with the level of energy the Chair provides. Good ones get fed up and leave, and the result is a moribund organisation.
    As Diane’s experience shows, the dictatorial, nasty Chair is a tragedy – combined with a Board that lets it happen. Elevating the quality of leadership – modelling and demonstrating how satisfying and influential (in a good way) the role can be may be one way to attract higher calibre leaders. As for me I stopped a political career because of the impact I could make in the NFP sector was so much more significant and direct, than within a largely dysfunctional political system.
    I love being a Board chair, and the ability to collaborate, partner, and bring resources to bear on entrenched disadvantage.

    But what if I am not what I think I am? I’ll use this article to let the Board evaluate my performance and gain some feedback from the CEO. I’m prepared to get out of the way if I need to. More should do the same.

  • Garth Nowland-Foreman

    I actually think we expect too much of our chairs. We expect them to be great facilitators of group dynamics; the most experienced people around the organisation, with much to contribute on the content of discussions and decisions; quiet, behind the scenes supporters and encouragers of our managers; persuasive public speakers and advocates for our organisations; great negotiators; figure-heads with great ‘mana’ (prestige and respect); people with plenty of time on their hands. As a result we also make the gap in expectations between mere mortal board members and chairs too great a leap for many to contemplate. And did you notice that some of these expectations, if not contradictory, are pretty uncommon combinations in mere mortals?

    For this reason, I suspect this kind of research could be more a part of the problem than the solution. I got exhausted just reading the list of golden qualities we expect in goo Chairs! More and more I have been thinking we need to break the Chair role into two or many more parts and find people who are NATURAL fits for the various roles rather than trying to squeeze ordinary folk into our super hero templates for chairs. For example, Convenor (for the person could at bringing the best out of a group discussion), Patron (for the high prestige or well connected individual that can publically, or behind the scenes, lend their reputation to our cause), Board Member Emeritus (for the organisational ‘elder’ or experienced person with lots of content knowledge and wisdom to contribute – in New Zealand we might call them ‘Kaumatua’), etc etc etc.

    This is just a first draft of my idea, and I am not wedded to any particular titles or roles, but I am attracted to the idea of lets break it down, and then it becomes many jobs that all of us can do, rather than a thankless job we are always on the search for a super hero to step into. It might also lead us away from too readily blaming the individual (most people do the best they can with the resources they have at the time), and towards fixing the system that keeps leading to the same problems time after time…

  • michael

    Garth, we already use that kind of model in our work with Boards. For example, meeting facilitation skills are critical to good governance. But if a Board Prez lacks this competency, it’s perfectly legit for them to name a Facilitator for meetings.

  • Carolyn Baker

    I very much enjoyed reading this article. I think the study on Board Chairs is most informatative in that it reveals to non-profits the behavior that is characteristic of effective Board Chairs. Much can be learned from this article, and it can be used as a guide for those comtemplating becoming Board Chairs.