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Doctor’s Orders: Oligarchy-opathy

Doctor’s Orders: Oligarchy-opathy

If we consider the social dynamics of a board, one common affliction might be called “oligarchy-opathy.” This syndrome presents itself when one group of board members obstructs the flow of intellectual capital from others in the governing body. Over time, this obstruction can cause strong decision-making to atrophy. A classic example of an oligarchy is an overzealous executive committee, but the problem can manifest through informal cliques among board members just as easily.

Some options for both preventive and restorative care available to boards suffering from oligarchy-opathy:

Board Chairs:

  • Ensure annual board evaluations and board member assessments gauge members’ sense of inclusion in committee discussions, as well as full-board discussions.
  • Encourage all board members to share their thoughts, and avoid soliciting the views of influential individuals ahead of others.
  • Give board committees clear charges, annual goals, and strategic agendas.
  • Limit the work of the executive committee to its defined purpose, and plan board work far enough in advance to prevent reliance on the executive committee.
  • Facilitate connections among board members with varying backgrounds and differing committee assignments.

Board Members:

  • Raise your concerns about oligarchy-opathy through the customary channels on your board; be prepared with discrete examples of your observations and give leaders an opportunity to be receptive to feedback.
  • Remember your fiduciary duties; if you are to effectively fulfill your duty of care for the institution's pursuit of mission, then you will need to not only listen but also speak on many issues, as will your colleagues.
  • Don’t wait until it’s too late – while it may be tempting to hold off for a better moment or gain more experience (or even more authority) before pursuing change, the board’s decision making may deteriorate if you do not raise concerns.
AGB’s National Commission on College and University Board Governance advised:
“A healthy board culture is an intangible but invaluable institutional asset, worth the same level of attention as building the endowment, or the faculty, or maintaining the physical plant. […] It requires nourishment and care from every member of the board and, most of all, from the board chair and the president.”
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