Votes of “no confidence” by faculty members in their president receive media coverage and attract unfavorable attention to the institution (and its president!). Yet, often more quietly, presidencies are more likely to succeed or fail due to the relationship between the president and the board of trustees. At orientation sessions conducted for new presidents, I am often asked what I most wish I had understood about boards when I became a president twenty years ago. The answer is easy: the complexity of the president’s role.
Presidents serve “at the pleasure of the board.” Boards hire, fire, and replace us; evaluate us annually; and monitor our performance regularly. We also staff the board—especially the board chair—even if assistants help with this role. Ensuring our chair is well-prepared for meetings is essential for a high-functioning board. Yet with due respect for the board’s fiduciary responsibilities and the board chair’s pivotal role, presidents must lead our boards if we are to effectively lead our institutions. Besides ensuring generous trustee philanthropy, we need to cultivate our boards by building relationships with all trustees and ensuring each member’s talent and time are used well. Most importantly, the nature of leadership in shared governance requires us to collaborate with our board.
Managing these complex roles and integrating them effortlessly is far more art than science. Presidents need humility as well as confidence, deference as well as assertiveness. We need board chairs willing and eager to develop a seamless partnership. And as with any successful relationship, the effort is rewarding and fun.