A Governance Perspective Article: The "Tone from the Top"

by Dr. Brad Saron, Superintendent and Dr. Steven Schroeder,  Board President
Sun Prairie Area School District, 2023

Sources: Kouzes and Pozner: Model the Way 

Core Thesis: The most significant way a Board can affect organizational change is through reflective work in becoming the best Board it can be, as opposed to the customary reaction to the need for system improvement, which is to double down on accountability and to govern through increased expectations. 

What If Organizational Reform Began with Board Excellence? 

The significant impact of divisive topics, isolated perspectives, and viral social media stories have negatively impacted the effectiveness of School Boards across Wisconsin and the United States, and this asphyxiating blast discord has governance leaders off their equilibrium, looking for solid ground from which to govern. With the larger public internalizing a culture of outrage, and with our school governance leaders off balance, many systems are now vulnerable and susceptible to organizational instability. To add to this, as school systems recover from the negative effects of the pandemic, the need to illustrate performance improvement to the organization’s owners is adding stress at the Board table and to the Board/Superintendent relationship. 

Regardless of the politics and viral media, funding issues and pandemic instability, for School Districts, students came to school for the beginning of this school year. Course schedules had to be fulfilled, educators needed to be hired, and buses needed to run on time. Given the urgency of need our students face and what they deserve from our schools, and given the instability of many School Boards, where do we go from here? What is a logical first step? Should the starting point be at Ends Policy refinement? Or should it be with monitoring progress and accountability? We’d like to advance a theory of action to postulate: Start with Board or, in our case, School Board effectiveness. 

The idea of beginning a journey of continuous improvement by first reflecting on one’s own performance is not new to leadership as a discipline. In his groundbreaking work on servant leadership, Robert Greenleaf writes much about leaders "going first" in his groundbreaking work on Servant Leadership. Stephen Covey’s first three habits are about self-improvement and reflection. Leadership authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Pozner have grounded much of their “Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership” model within the first tenant of “Model the Way.” The notion of formulating standards of excellence and being the first to set the standard of “living out” a commitment to them is often ingrained in leadership methodology, but rarely has it been applied to Boardroom work and the positive effect Board leadership can have on the institution over which it governs. Consider this: How many instances of system reform begin with a Board commitment to leadership in governance? More often, system reform begins with the Board engaging in a leadership search, in dialogue about holding administrators more accountable, and in grandstanding to special interest groups that may not have the complete story of careholder expectations. But the real work starts by looking in the mirror.

Of course, it is not just Board members, who more frequently than not, point externally to problems or areas that need improvement versus focusing inwardly. Many human beings, especially in Western cultures,  tend to look for fault elsewhere, with a lack of self-awareness, to find opportunities to improve internally, either with themselves or the Board. We have found five characteristics that Boards have and/or develop to lead by example in improving their own effectiveness:

  • Vulnerability
  • A mindset of continuous improvement
  • Aptitude for feedback
  • Humility
  • A focus on their role and what they can control

Author Brené Brown has shown the world the importance of vulnerability with her bestselling books. She defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. As Boards focus on themselves, the feelings of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure are probable and are also likely why Boards, and many humans, resist their own internal work. Of course, being vulnerable, and showing the careholdership (ownership) that vulnerability, only makes the Board stronger. Vulnerability is not a weakness but a strength that Boards should lean into.

Boards expect that the organization they govern continually improves. No organization can stay stagnant and expect to thrive or survive. But do Boards share that same mindset for their own performance? Effective Boards have an expectation that the organization they serve evolves and focuses on growth as well as their own Board. It is important to note that all Board members have a responsibility for the continuous improvement mindset, not just the Board chair.

Feedback is critical for growth and success, both for humans and for organizations. The importance of establishing a culture of providing and receiving feedback cannot be overstated. It is our experience that Boards are much better at giving feedback than receiving it, especially in complex times. Many Boards do not even provide an opportunity for careholders to provide substantive feedback. Finding ways for careheolders and staff to provide feedback and for Board members to provide feedback to each other is important. Being the example will also show the organization the importance of feedback for organizational excellence.

Robert Greenleaf and Jim Collins are just two of the many leadership authors who write about the importance, power, and effectiveness of humble leaders. Humble Board members understand that they have a lot to learn and are open to that learning. They listen intently and try to see issues from others’ perspectives. Humility is often overlooked, but it is an essential component of effective leadership and governance.

As mentioned, it is easy for Boards to focus on matters within an organization and not even be cognizant of potential issues within the Board itself. Boards that are effective and reflective are vulnerable, have a continuous improvement mindset, are open to receiving and providing feedback, and are humble. They focus on self-improvement before trying to tackle organizational matters. They understand their governing role within the organization and work just as hard to monitor and improve their own effectiveness than that of the organization they serve. 

Without question, Boards need to hold systems accountable for results they proactively define.  What we advance here is that the first step in system accountability is Board accountability. And, through first focusing efforts on excellence in governance, the Board can “Model the Way” of continuous improvement for the organization. And in doing so, its members will have the credibility within the organization to expect great things to happen.