You Made Me Better Than I Was

Board experiences should leave all participants better than they were.


by Dan Busby and John Pearson


Grant us the joy of arriving at adjournment
closer to one another because we are closer to You. [1]

Dan Bolin


In 1979, 20,000 of Muhammad Ali’s “closest friends” assembled at the Great Western Forum in Inglewood, California, as a tribute to the great boxer and his career. Speaking of the loquacious Ali, Comedian Billy Crystal said, “There are few things that I can say about Ali that he has not already said about himself.”


Crystal went on to perform “15 Rounds,” a 12-minute routine tracing Ali’s global, professional debut at the 1960 Olympics all the way up through his triumphant rematch against Leon Spinks in 1978, at the age of 36. Crystal switched flawlessly between impressions of sports commentator Howard Cosell, Ali, and others over the course of 15 vignettes—each made distinct by the ringing of a bell.

Ali always referred to Crystal as “Little Brother.” After Crystal completed his routine that night, Ali gave him a hug and whispered in his ear, “Little brother, you made my life better than it was.”

In 2016, Crystal also spoke at Ali’s funeral at the largest arena in Louisville, Kentucky and revealed for the first time what Ali had whispered to him in 1979. Crystal finished his touching eulogy by saying, “But didn’t he make all of our lives a little bit better than they were?”

In the same way, shouldn’t the time that board members and the CEO spend with each other make each of their lives a little better than they were? I think so.

How can boards and CEOs ensure that the board­room experience will make everyone better than they were? It all starts with relationships.

I remember my shock (and that’s not too strong a word) when two long-serving members of a small board were chatting before the meeting began. “Remind me again,” one board member asked of the other board member, “what company do you work for?”

After so much time serving together, these individuals should have known each other intimately, and as often happens on great boards, they could have become close friends. Yet it wasn’t happening.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, in his article “What Makes Great Boards Great,” says the key to board effectiveness “isn’t structural, it’s social.” He adds, “The most involved, diligent, value-adding boards may or may not follow every recommendation in the good-governance handbook. What distinguishes exemplary boards is that they are robust, effective social systems.”[2]

Max De Pree said, “Many people seem to feel that a good board structure enables high performance. This is simply not so.”[3] He suggests that high impact boards “spend reflective time together, they are vulnerable with each other, they challenge each other in love, and deal with conflicts as mature adults.”[4] The CEO and the board chair are “to set the tone for good relationships, but it is up to every individual on the board to develop, nurture, and polish good relationships.”[5]

Here are just a few ways to make board members and CEOs better than they were before their boardroom involvement:

  • Unwavering support. Boards that are better today than they were before know they can count on each other for support when the going gets tough.
  • Creative thought. Boards that are better today than they were before are open to outside-the-box thinking. They have become about clock building, not time-telling.
  • Wrestling with issues that require wisdom. Boards that are better than they were before recognize the difference between problems that require solutions and reports that invite feedback.
  • Robust interaction and guaranteed confidentiality. Boards that are better than they were before give space for robust interaction and guaranteed confidentiality. If confidentiality is assured but then breached, the necessary interaction is muted.



The goal of every board should be to create an atmosphere
where the board is better than it was before.

  Board Action Steps:

  1. Assess: What is our board doing that makes us all better than we were before? Or is this not yet being accomplished?

  2. Action Steps: Identify action steps to maximize the board’s social systems.

  3. Anticipate: Anticipate the high impact that will result from developing, nurturing, and polishing good relationships.



Lord, may one of the key priorities of our board be
to set the tone for good relationships
and great board experiences. Amen.



[1] From “A Board Prayer” by Dan Bolin, featured in Lesson 40, Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom, 207–211.

[2] Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, “What Makes Great Boards Great,” Posted September 2002. Harvard Business Review:, 4.

[3] Max De Pree, Called to Serve: Creating and Nurturing the Effective Volunteer Board (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 11.

[4] Ibid., 55.

[5] Ibid., 11.


From More Lessons From the Nonprofit Boardroom: Effectiveness, Excellence, Elephants!, 2019,

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.