Periodic Stewardship Dysfunction (PSD)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - 16:15

You’ve got to love lawyers. They can keep things orderly and aboveboard, helping to head off problems with sound insight about staying on the right side of the law. They can also overreach. Lawyers sometimes think they know a lot about running organizations simply because they spend lots of time advising organization executives and boards of directors. 

This came home to me the other day in one of my volunteer board positions outside of Community Partners. In the course of advising my fellow board members and me on how best to navigate a personnel situation involving the chief executive, the well-meaning lawyer began advising the board on management issues and organizational development. I attempted to steer him back to clarifying and finishing the legal matter at hand, yet he kept returning to issues outside the law. Glancing around the table at my fellow directors, I sought support in keeping the lawyer on the matter for which he’d been retained. What I got instead was near-complete acquiescence to the lawyer’s clear case of role creep. 

The chair should have corrected the lawyer quickly, and in another setting he probably would have. What is it that causes otherwise capable board members to follow when a well-spoken expert veers out of his depth into territory substantially beyond his experience? In their own organizations and professional lives, they likely would not tolerate such nonsense. What causes them to change when they assume the mantle of volunteer directors?

I think this sort of PSD (Periodic Stewardship Dysfunction) breeds in the murky grey swamp of management/governance role confusion. Boards afflicted with PSD forget that hiring professional staff means it’s time to re-position and stick to setting policy and establishing clear terms of accountability. When clarity fades about where accountability lies, trouble often ensues. Allowing consultants, lawyers and other outside advisors to intrude with their views on organization management opens the door to rampant PSD. The cure: mature board members trained and seasoned enough to know the difference between useful knowledge and half-baked opinion, between the light touch of volunteer directorship and the firm hand of a tested executive leader.