Power Sharing in the Boardroom


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Author: Lindsay Jones

This article first appeared on the Open University's Department of Public Leadership's PuLSE Blog. 


The role of the board in leading nonprofit organisations is not well understood, and across all sectors boards are often thought of as ‘’black boxes’ where inputs and outputs shape the research focus. However, this approach obscures how  board teams function and lead (Vandewaerde et al, 2011 In the UK context Chris Cornforth  (2014) argues  that it is time to get into the boardroom to understand board governance, but as part of a wider system of governance . Similarly, David Renz (2018) on the other side of the Atlantic, argues governance is moving beyond the domain of the board, to systems of organised influence.

So, one of the challenges  for contemporary  researchers is to  focus on board processes and how these work in practice; together with board  behaviour that enables good governance. This focus is particularly important  at a time in the UK when persistent  and visible cases of failure in the governance of  UK charities (e.g. Kids Company and Oxfam), apparently have resulted in blaming the leadership behaviour of those at the top; and potentially worsening  an already recognised decrease in public trust around how charities are governed (Liket and Maas, 2015).  The voluntary sector is (including charities) acknowledged to be hugely diverse in relation to purpose and mission (Herman and Renz, 2008) and brings unique governance challenges compared to other sectors.  Critically,  boards are frequently made up of unpaid volunteers, who can walk away, at the drop of hat. Also, services often rely on volunteers, who while being hugely committed, can resist managerial control (O’Toole and Grey, 2016).

Power Sharing

So how do we go about power sharing in the boardroom? Particularly  when board literature questions whether individual board members  can work as a team (Casey, 1985) and few executives make teamwork a reality in their organisations, despite  talking up the value of teamwork (Lencioni, 2003).   Like Conger and Lawler (2009)  I argue that shared leadership (Pearce and Conger.(2003)  expressed as ‘a dynamic interactive influence process among individuals in groups for which the objective is to lead one another to the achievement of group or organizational goals’   is a model for the boardroom for three reasons.

Firstly, the board’s horizontal authority structure offers a more collective form of leadership (Vandewaerde et al, 2011) and  a power sharing focus on  group rather than individual goals  (Hernandez et al, 2011). Secondly, traditional leadership and the assumption that the locus of  leadership is vested in a single individual exercising top down control (Ensley et al 2006) does not meet the aspirations of contemporary organisations (Chin, 2015) and authors are less persuaded by a top-down leader centric process (Wang, 2014). Thirdly, it has a positive impact on team performance (D’Innocenzo et al, 2016) by  uncovering shared purpose and giving the opportunity  for different voices to be heard (Carson et al, 2007).

My research conceives of  boards in the Riding for the Disabled Association  Incorporating Carriage Driving (RDA) as teams. I am using a network governance  lens to explore  the ways that individuals within and external to the board construct leadership and enact governance. So, who are the sources of formal and informal leadership, how do these emerge over time (Morgeson et al, 2010); and what are the contextual influences that shape leadership and multi-level governance? I am at an early stage of researching this topic and I enter the conversation about nonprofit boards from a leadership perspective.

lindsay Lindsay is a full-time PhD student at The Open University and a Director of Faculty Services Limited. Formerly she held senior management roles in Human Resources (HR) in both the Corporate and Public sectors in South Africa and in Professional Legal Services in the UK.


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