The Bully in the Boardroom

The board chair, the CEO, and other board members must neutralize the board bully.

 

by Dan Busby and John Pearson

 

It was more than a little bit helpful to keep the phrase
“created in the image of God” in the back of my mind
as I listened to someone criticize me or my policies. [1]

Gov. Bill Haslam
 

 

A board bully is one who manipulates, pressures, blames, and coerces people to follow his or her ideas or agenda (for example, see what happened to Peter in Galatians 2:12).

Board bullies wreak havoc and create dissension. They often maneuver into leadership positions, such as the chair of an important board or committee. Amazingly, some bullies can even do damage without holding a leadership role.

Thom Rainer[2] and Joe McKeever[3] both describe board bullies with the following characteristics:

  1. They have strong personalities. They tend to be boisterous. They speak up frequently in meetings and dominate conversations.
  2. They are highly opinionated. And if you ever disagree with them, you become their next target.
  3. They are famous for using the phrase, “People are saying . . .” The full sentence could be, “People are saying that you are too critical of your staff.” “People” is never defined. The true complainer is never identified.
  4. They are not good listeners. They want you to listen to them, but they don’t want to listen to you.
  5. They do not recognize themselves as bullies. Instead, they see themselves as heroes sent to save the ministry.

Here’s what your ministry can do to minimize the negative impact of board bullies:

  1. Treat the board bully as a person for whom Christ died. How we treat the board bully “in conversation or [how we] behave toward them in public is a testimony of how Christ would deal with them. We must model respect, love, and compassion in all our words and deeds—as He did.”[4]
  2. Appoint or elect individuals to key positions with care. Since a board bully generally needs an official pulpit (perhaps that would make it a “bully pulpit”), be careful not to appoint or elect bullies to positions of power.[5] Use a spiritually and strategically designed process to choose and recruit people for key leadership positions.
  3. Pray the bully out of power. Pray. Ask the Lord for insights. Listen to Him. Wait on Him. Ask prayer warriors to daily pray a hedge of protection around you and, yes, even ask for prayer that the issues with the bully will be resolved.
  4. Use spiritual discernment in conflict resolution. Applying spiritual discernment will generally mean holding the bully accountable for what he or she is doing. In extreme cases, bring in help from outside the board to form an intervention team.[6]
  5. Empower your board chair to take appropriate steps in dealing with a board bully. If the board bully is the board chair—well, that is a big challenge! Otherwise, the board chair should exercise authority in board meetings to assure that the board bully is kept in check.
  6. Be a high-expectation ministry. “Higher-expectation ministries tend to be more unified, more Great Commission focused, more biblically defined, and more servant oriented.”[7] High expectations provide an environment where bullying is ineffective.
  7. Be willing to let the bully leave the board. Board bullies will often threaten to leave if they don’t get their way. In considerate ways, open the door for them. When they threaten to resign, graciously respond, “I accept your resignation.”

Not all boards have bullies. Thank the Lord! Once in a while, there are multiple board bullies. When a bully is encountered, the CEO and the board must be on alert and take action to minimize the bully’s impact. And, if the CEO is the bully, may heaven help you!

 

BOARDROOM LESSON
_______________________________

Fundamentally, bullying is a spiritual issue:
you must address the bully in your boardroom—
or the work of God’s Kingdom will be hindered.
Board bullies wreak havoc and they create dissension,
yet remember that they are created in the image of God.
Empower your board chair to courageously and
graciously help the bully to exit with grace
or to change his or her sinful pattern.
 

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Commit: Before your relationships are damaged by a bully in your boardroom, agree—in advance—that the board chair will address the issue.

  2. Care: As your board chair, accompanied perhaps by another board member, prepares for the “crucial conversation”[8] with the board bully, apply equal doses of spiritual care and biblical discipline, according to Matthew 18.

  3. Complete: Don’t let the problem fester. Find a God-honoring solution. This may be asking the bully to exit.
     

 

Prayer

Lord, give us the courage and grace
to address the bully in our boardroom. Amen.

 

 

[1] Bill Haslam, “Public Office as a Spiritual Discipline.” Posted January 11, 2018. Comment: https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/5171/public-office-as-a-spiritual-discipline/.

[2] See Thom Rainer, “Nine Traits of Church Bullies.” Posted March 30, 2015. https://thomrainer.com/2015/03/nine-traits-church-bullies/. “Eight Warning Signs of a Bully Church Member.” Posted July 20, 2016. https://thomrainer.com/2016/07/eight-warning-signs-bully-church-member/.

[3] Joe McKeever, “What to Say to a Church Bully.” Posted September 24, 2013. Ministry Today: www.ministrytodaymag.com.

[4] Michael J. Anthony, The Effective Church Board (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 266.

[5] The term “bully pulpit” was coined by United States President Theodore Roosevelt, who referred to his office as a “bully pulpit,” by which he meant a terrific platform from which to advocate an agenda. See “Bully Pulpit.” Merriam-Webster: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bully pulpit.

[6] Ruth Haley Barton addresses a Matthew 18 spiritual discernment process, “Practicing Conflict Transformation,” in her book Pursuing God’s Will Together, 145–148.

[7] Thom Rainer, “Nine Ways to Deal With Church Bullies.” Posted April 1, 2015. https://thomrainer.com/2015/04/nine-ways-deal-church-bullies/.

[8] Kerry Patterson, et. al., Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, 2nd ed. (Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Education, 2011).
 

From More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: Effectiveness, Excellence, Elephants!, 2019, www.ECFA.org/KnowledgeCenter.


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.

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