But you know, it doesn't have to be that way. People who read my L2LD Blog (www.learningtolearn-differently.com) will know that I am a big fan of Carol Dweck. Her thesis on nurturing a "growth mindset" in students is a powerful argument for directed, positive reinforcement of executive functioning skills and work ethic in students. She contrasts a growth mindset with that of a "fixed mindset", a difference which she defines this way:
In a fixed mindset students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits. They have a certain amount and that's that, and then their goal becomes to look smart all the time and never look dumb. In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence. They don't necessarily think everyone's the same or anyone can be Einstein, but they believe everyone can get smarter if they work at it.
Dweck's contentions about students and learning are just as valid when we are considering Board dynamics. Like kids, we adults can also adopt a fixed mindset. In our cases in might not related to our view of our own intelligence or abilities but rather to our values and priorities. If we get hung up on always standing up for fiscal prudence - seeing ourselves as Horatio at the bridge defending the school from the free-spending hordes; or, locking ourselves in as the "champion" of teaching and learning - convinced that no amount is too much when it comes to adding staff or improving facilities or resources; then we sacrifice the flexibility needed to take advantage of all of the skills and insights around the table.
Boards, like schools, need to have a "growth mindset". Trustees need to be convinced that creative, collaborative solutions can be reached through, to paraphrase Carol Dweck, "effort, good governance, and persistence". Easier said than done? You would be surprised how straightforward a process it can be to loosen the log jam that paralyzes some Boards. Years ago I had the privilege of teaching alongside William Watson Purkey Jr.(Self Concept and School Achievement, 1970) at the University of Connecticut. Bill Purkey (University of North Carolina) and my friend John Novak (Brock University) wrote Inviting School Success in 1984. Their work in invitational education struck the right note between empty praise, and potentially limiting criticism. They saw invitational education as a general framework for thinking and acting about what is believed to be worthwhile in schools.
Applied to Board governance, it articulates five basic principles: (1) All Board members are able, valuable, and responsible, and should be treated accordingly; (2) governance should be a collaborative, cooperative activity; (3) the process is the product in the making; (4) people possess untapped potential in all areas of worthwhile human endeavor; and (5) this potential can best be realized by places, policies, programs, and processes specifically designed to invite development, and by people who are intentionally inviting with themselves and others personally and professionally.
The secret is to see Board governance as a continuum rather than a series of isolated decisions or successfully or unsuccessfully implemented policies or initiatives. Good governance is a work in progress. It is a developmental process that can easily be derailed as soon as Board members put a value judgement on it (e.g. "fiscally irresponsible", "uncaring", etc.). One dimensional assessments of an idea, no matter how well intentioned or seemingly justified, stop the collaborative decision-making process and lead to not only fixed mindsets in Board members about their roles and influence, but also in the collective viewpoint on the limits on possible Board actions.
So the real question is: "Who is responsible to instil a growth mindset in all members of the Board"? Is it the Chair, who must try to balance viewpoints and seek out consensus decisions? Is it the Governance Committee, that needs to educate directors in collaborative decision-making and step in when they see the Board becoming polarized? Or is it the role of every single Board member to ensure that she or he keeps an open mind and resists the temptation to shut down debate with a caustic or dismissive comment? Obviously, to some extent it is all three; but ultimately, the Chair carries the greatest burden to manage the discussions and encourage a growth mindset among all members.
Will every Board reach its full potential? Who knows! But it is the collective responsibility of everyone around the table to keep their minds open to all of the possibilities and to have that flexible mindset that says:
"If we have the will, and the perseverance, there is definitely a way!"