How Boards Work Together: 3 Leadership Styles

According to Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards by Richard Chait, William Ryan, and Barbara Taylor, there are three types of leadership styles that govern a nonprofit’s Board of Directors. Each emphasizes different aspects of governance and rests on different assumptions about the nature of organizations and leadership. One type is not better than another; rather all three are equally important, and each fulfills vital purposes.

“When trustees work well in all three of these modes, the board achieves governance as leadership,” Chait, et al explain.

This blog article describes the three leadership styles: operational, strategic, and generative. You may identify one or more of these styles as characteristic of your board. Most boards are a little of all three, and all three must work together to make a board successful. As you read below, ask yourself these questions:

  • Which leadership style is most prominent for your board today?
  • Which type is most appropriate for you to focus on currently in your board’s development?

Operational

When a nonprofit board and staff are equally involved in defining problems and opportunities for the organization, the board is said to be in an operational mode. Qualities of an operational style of board leadership include the following:

  • Structure parallels administrative functions of the organization, with a premium on permanency. An operational board may have a human resources committee, marketing committee, and program committee, all of which make decisions about the day-to-day work of the organization. Committees do not change.
  • Meetings are process driven. Committees present reports, the full board votes to make decisions, and representatives bring action items back to committees where they are implemented.
  • Board receives large quantities of technical data from few sources, mostly staff. Because this type of board fills the role of problem solver, it must spend a great deal of time reviewing detailed information about the organization before making important decisions.

Many boards begin as operational, and then they grow and take on paid staff to complete the functions they are fulfilling.

Strategic

A strategic Board works with nonprofit management to discover strategic priorities and drivers for the organization, rather than focusing on operations. Qualities of a strategic style of board leadership include the following:

  • Structure mirrors strategy, with a premium on flexibility. Committees are formed around strategic priorities such as fundraising, expanding to a new community, or taking on additional programming. Committees change when strategic priorities change.
  • Meetings are content driven. Form follows function, and protocol varies often. This board employs the consent agenda as a singular action item at each meeting so that it can spend most of its time on strategic work.
  • Board and staff discuss strategic data from multiple sources. This data isn’t as detailed as the information that operational boards review—it’s higher level and comes from a variety of stakeholders.

A strategic board tends to exist in larger organizations with staff functions that can absorb operational work.

Generative

A generative—or visionary—board is a less common leadership style, and more mature. It is used when nonprofit staff successfully run both operational and strategic functions. Qualities of a generative style of board leadership include the following:

  • Structure majors on a culture of inquiry, mutual respect, and constructive debate that leads to sound and shared decision making. This type of board thinks through and picks apart different organizational components to challenge and improve the nonprofit.
  • Meetings are spent seeking more information, questioning assumptions, and challenging conclusions. This board advocates for solutions based on analysis.
  • Discussions are framed around big-picture questions, as opposed to current operational or strategic priorities. Such questions can include: What will be the most striking difference about the organization over the next five years? How might our constituents consider the legacy they are leaving? If we were successfully to merge with another organization, which would we choose and why?

A generative board provides less recognized but critical sources of leadership for an organization. According to Chait, et al, “generative governance requires a fusion of thinking, not a division of labor.”

For more information about operational, strategic, and generative boards, including some real-life examples of each, check out the recent webinar I did on April 3rd for the Nonprofit Learning Lab, The Context of Innovative Board Leadership

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