Main Body

Chapter 10: Leadership on the Board


Most literature on the leadership function of nonprofit organization boards concentrates on the role of the board as a whole. This emphasis is because, legally speaking, it is the final authority for the organization—even though it may delegate some of its authority to a CEO. Similarly, it recognizes that no one board member may legally act as a representative of the entire board on a given matter unless given authority to do so by the Board itself.

Just as in other work groups, however, boards have both formal and informal individual leaders within them—people who have a significant influence over how the group works and how effective it is. For example, as previously discussed, some boards develop influential core groups within them and they can be a positive or negative force for change

While these kinds of informal leaders and groups are important to identify, it is generally agreed that the most influential leaders in nonprofit organizations are the board chair and the CEO. In many small voluntary organizations with no paid staff, the board chair and CEO may be the same person (though it should be noted that it is illegal for charities in some jurisdictions such as New York, to have Chair/CEO leadership roles held by the same person).

A high percentage of agreement with the following statements might indicate problems with leadership of the board:

  • There is a kind of “inner group” that seems to run things on the board and those who are not part of it sometimes feel left out.
  • The board chair tends to be overly controlling.
  • The board chair seems to have her/his own “agenda,” which is not always shared by others.
  • The board chair is a bit too passive and/or disorganized in her/his leadership style.
  • The board chair’s meeting leadership skills are not as strong as they could be.
  • As far as I know, the board chair is reluctant to speak to board members who don’t carry out their responsibilities properly.
  • As far as I know, the relationship between the CEO and the board chair is quite formal; they don’t talk much “off the record.”
  • As far as I know the CEO rarely consults individual board members for informal advice or assistance.
  • There seems to be a lack of trust between the CEO and the board.
  • The information that the CEO provides the board to help it make decisions is sometimes inadequate or too slanted.
  • The CEO seems to be trying to dominate or control the board too much.


It is important to realize when respondents check the statements dealing with leadership that they are providing their perceptions only, not an “objective” reality. Also, it must be remembered that the reasons people are perceived as being more or less effective leaders may, or may not, lie within the leaders themselves. In other words, it is possible that situations and circumstances may create conditions that make it difficult for almost anyone in a leadership position to be perceived as effective. It is also possible that a person in such a position might be very effective under one set of circumstances but not in another. The case of Winston Churchill is often presented as the most vivid example of this—a universally acclaimed leader during WWII who was defeated in the polls once peace was restored after the war. Times changed and he was no longer seen as the leader people wanted.

With respect to reasons for perceptions of leader ineffectiveness, our research suggests there are five major ones:

  1. Lack of role clarity. In our research on board chairs, we found a significant positive relationship between clarity of key actor roles and perception of chair leadership effectiveness.
  2. Situational factors. For example, in our research, we found evidence of a negative relationship between CEO turnover and perception of chair leadership effectiveness and impact. This finding suggests that stability in CEO tenure may be associated with being seen to be effective.
  3. The board’s own prior ineffectiveness—its failure to adopt “good governance practices” is associated with perceptions of poor leadership. Our research and that of others (e.g., Ostrower, 2007) points to a significant positive relationship between the reported use of good governance practices (e.g., strategic planning, board performance assessment, assessment of CEO leadership and organizational effectiveness, etc.), and perceived leadership effectiveness. Because all of this research was based on one-point-in-time correlational methodologies, however, it is not possible to say whether the presence of good governance practices makes it more likely that leaders will be seen as effective, or whether leaders who are seen as effective are more likely to use their influence to help their boards adopt good governance practices.
  4. The personality traits leaders bring to their position. In our research it was found that chairs who were perceived as being honest, humble and helpful were also more likely to be seen as having more impact on the performance of the board, the CEO and the organization. The same relationship was found between perceived chair effectiveness and perceptions of chair’s “emotional intelligence” (i.e., as someone who is self-aware and able to manage others in relationships) and in possession of the traits associated with team leadership (being open, fair, respectful, able to create a safe climate where issues can be discussed, one who recognizes others, and does not distract them from goals, etc.). The findings of this research are supported by general leadership studies that show leader personality to be a strong influence on leader effectiveness (see Miller & Droge, 1996).
  5. The involvement of followers with leaders. Our research on board chairs found that when members of a group spend more time with the leader and have more interaction with her/him, they are more likely to see the leader as effective. This could be due to the nature of the role they play. (For example, the CEO, board officers and committee chairs are more likely to interact frequently with the Chair than “ordinary” board members, staff or external stakeholders). This explanation assumes that the “closer” people get to their leaders, the more likely they are to think favorably of them. These results suggest that leaders will benefit from spending time building high quality relationships with others.

Whatever the reason, leadership ineffectiveness can be costly for the board and organization that fails to address it. Cost can be seen in board and CEO turnover, level of engagement, job dissatisfaction, low social cohesion, poor board morale, lack of public trust, inability to innovate, etc. For a full discussion of the informal leadership that may be exerted by “core groups” within the board, see Chapter 8 on Board Culture.


The results obtained from this section of the Board Check-Up are the most sensitive and potentially difficult to handle of any. Most people, when asked if they would like to have their job performance reviewed, tend to say they welcome feedback on how they are doing so they can use it to improve. In practice, however, many do not appreciate being what they see as “unfairly criticized” no matter how much effort is made to make it “constructive” criticism. Varying degrees of defensiveness and hostility are common reactions even though they may not be made obvious at the time. In one early experience with the Board Performance Self-Assessment instrument, for example, an instance arose in which a third of respondents indicated that they thought the board chair had difficulties running effective meetings. The board chair said nothing at the time but within a month quietly resigned, well before her term was up. One might argue that this was all for the best but this overlooks the possibility that, if these results had been handled differently, she might have reacted differently and, for example, obtained some training in meeting leadership.

The following are suggestions for dealing with perceptions of leadership issues:

  • It is best if, before the results of the survey are revealed to anyone, the Survey Coordinator hold a discussion with both the CEO and the Chair about a hypothetical situation in which some board members report perceptions that these leaders are engaged in one or more of the problematic situations described in this section of the survey. This discussion should cover to whom these results should be communicated and how they should be interpreted.
  • It is recommended that, at first, results should be communicated only to the person involved, e.g., the Chair or the CEO. It should also be agreed that there are various possible reasons for such results as described above, which should be explored and that they do not necessarily mean that the board is dissatisfied with the leader. It could be that there is a situation that the board needs to address that negatively impacts the leadership of the chair or CEO.
  • Finally, it should be understood that all the behaviors described in this section could be addressed through additional training and/or coaching. It is quite possible that a different style of leadership is new to many leaders. Also, it is not always possible for Chairs or CEOs to find the time or opportunity to take leadership development courses. What is more possible, in many cases, is to find effective experienced leaders of boards who are willing to act as mentors or coaches to the Chair or CEO for short periods of time. Retaking the Board Check-Up after a period of such coaching can provide useful indicators of the extent to which leadership from these critical officers has improved and to what extent agreed upon goals have been reached.

Leadership Development

The preceding discussion addresses how to help key leaders such as the Board Chair and CEO develop their leadership competency but it does not get into detail about what these competencies should be. There is not the space here to get into this very large and complex topic, however, a few key points can be made. Perhaps the most important is that there is no “one best way” to lead in all situations. Different mixes of board member personalities and different external conditions call for differing approaches to leading. The key question the board should consider is how can nonprofit leadership be managed for higher board performance?

The majority of the items in the list of board leadership issues above relate to the leadership competencies of effective chairs and CEOs. Other items relate to leadership influence and impact. For example, our research has shown that board chairs seen as exerting too little or too much influence in the role are also seen as having limited impact on the board, the CEO, the organization, and the support of external stakeholders.

This research identified the following behaviors of highly effective chairs. Organized in clusters, they are:

  • Motivation and style (e.g., is helpful, has a sense of humor, is empowering, friendly and humble).
  • Capacity to lead (e.g., is committed to the organization, devoted in terms of time given to it, capable of seeing the big picture, able to handle contentious issues, and collaborative).
  • Personal attributes (e.g., is bright/intelligent, trustworthy, confident, thoughtful, organized, focused, and creative).
  • Ability to relate(e.g., is flexible, easy going, non-judgmental and calm).
  • Ability to advance the organization externally. (e.g., possesses connections and influence with key people and is willing to use them (see Harrison & Murray, 2012; Harrison, Murray, & Cornforth, 2013).

Herman and Heimovics (2005) identified the following competencies of “board centered” CEOs. They are:

  • Facilitate interaction in board relationships;
  • Show consideration and respect toward board members;
  • Envision change and innovation for the organization with the board;
  • Provide useful and helpful information for the board; and
  • Promote board accomplishments and productivity.

The National Learning Initiative (2003) also identified competencies of effective leadership volunteers saying they:

  • Are motivated to serve (e.g., recruited for the right reasons, empowered for the service of mission/others)
  • Create, shared vision, and align strategically (e.g., are informed, consider best practices, contribute to the development of. and commitment to. a shared vision that provides meaning and direction)
  • Develop effective relationships (e.g., nurture a healthy organization and work environment, are socially aware and maintain effective relationships)
  • Create value (e.g., open to innovation, creativity, and change; translate theories into action; are responsive and accountable)

One of the better ways to design the kind of leadership that is best for your organization is that offered by the Competing Values Approach to leadership effectiveness (see Quinn et al., Becoming a Master Manager: A Competing Values Approach, 5th edition, for a description of the leadership competencies, and assessment tools that can be used to assess leadership effectiveness). The Competing Values Approach to assessing and developing leadership competency recognizes there are different values that underlie leadership styles (e.g., the tendency to focus on people, strategic goals, management processes, innovation and changes in the external environment etc.) and that these values can create tensions between leaders involved in the governance process. They have created a set of diagnostic criteria to assess leadership effectiveness and surface tensions in the leadership process. To develop leadership, they say leaders simply need enough information to adjust their behavior rather than to alter it altogether. This “balanced” approach to leadership development, which recognizes there are competing values and leadership styles, should reduce tensions and the tendency for organizations to swing from one ineffective leader to another.

Regardless of the approach or tool used, leadership development is an opportunity for nonprofit boards to:

  • Assess leadership competency and isolate the contributions nonprofit leaders make to the board and organization through the governance process.
  • Discuss tensions that exist between leaders and groups in the governance process. Nonprofit leaders should also discuss how to develop leadership competency and overcome situations in cases where leadership effectiveness is challenged (e.g., crisis, board chair or CEO turnover, etc.).
  • Develop a focused plan for nonprofit leadership development that will be reviewed as part of the board performance assessment process.
  • Increase responsibility of leaders in the governance process (e.g., from board member with no committee responsibilities, to committee member, officer and ultimately, chair of the board).
  • Recognize leaders for their leadership contributions to the board and organization.

Table 11 contains additional useful information and resources to increase the governance effectiveness of the organization through leadership.

Table 11: Additional Board Leadership Resources



Source Website

Leadership Development: General


National Council of Nonporofits

The Bridgespan Group


Ivey Business School, Western University

Leadership Assessment Tools


Board Source

CEO Leadership Development


Stanford Social Innovation Review


KnowHow NonProfit