Called to Serve: Give Space…But Plan Sparingly

By John Pearson

Note: This is No. 27 in a series of blogs featuring wisdom from the 91-page gem by Max De Pree.

Max De Pree: “How can a board expect a president to paint a coherent or imaginative picture on an unlimited canvas?”

In his insightful section on “What the Board Owes the President,” De Pree writes, “Like everyone else, the leader of an organization needs space, in the context of this [discussion], space to become president.” He then references wisdom from a friend and mentor:

Dr. Carl Frost “has taught a good many of us that when we are promoted to president, it does not mean we are instantly qualified. The board and the organization are actually giving us only, as Carl would put it, ‘the opportunity to become president’—a great chance, but still only a chance.”

De Pree adds that great boards give a president space “by acting with [the CEO] to set the priorities, as well as working to involve the entire organization in understanding and adopting those priorities. How can a board expect a president to paint a coherent or imaginative picture on an unlimited canvas?”

Ralph E. Enlow Jr. agrees. “Plan sparingly,” he counsels in The Leader’s Palette: Seven Primary Colors. “Plans also fail because they are too bulky. Good planning is participatory. Especially at the operational level, it should flow up from the grassroots. It requires the input of all major stakeholders and systems.”

And then Enlow adds this kicker:

“But good planning is not the accumulation of everyone’s aspirations.
Ultimately, a plan represents the elimination of options.”

It’s ironic, but when a board gives “space” to the CEO, that space must be defined. Whether you use the imagery of the corral from the policy governance® model, or the board policies manual approach recommended by numerous board consultants—every board must define the parameters of the staff’s scope of responsibility. That’s giving “space” in the best sense of the word.

Max De Pree’s wonderful book, Leadership Jazz (Peter Drucker called the book, “wisdom in action”), concludes with a list of 12 leadership attributes, including discernment. De Pree writes, “Discernment lies somewhere between wisdom and judgment.”

Christ-centered boards and CEOs have amazing 24/7 access to the Holy Spirit when they pray as the psalmist prayed, “Teach me good discernment and knowledge, for I believe in Your commandments” (Psalm 119:66, KJV).

BOARD EXERCISE: Discuss “space” at your next board meeting. Are the fences to the corral well-defined? Is the corral too big or too small? Does the board allocate adequate space to the CEO—or does the board meddle and micro-manage?


This article was originally posted on the “Governance of Christ-Centered Organizations” blog, hosted by ECFA.
John Pearson, a board governance consultant and author, was ECFA’s governance blogger from 2011 to 2020.
© 2021, ECFA and John Pearson. All rights reserved.

This text is provided with the understanding that ECFA is not rendering legal, accounting, or other professional advice or service. Professional advice on specific issues should be sought from an accountant, lawyer, or other professional.