It matters who’s on the mountain with you (part 2)

A few posts back I suggested that for fundraisers, who it is that’s on the mountain with you makes a world of difference. The annual climb to the top of giving pyramid is a grueling, lonely, and sometimes perilous trek. What a blessing to find a hiking companion willing to go the distance with you.

But development staff aren’t the only folks slogging up the organizational mountainside. There are others within the nonprofit world for whom the uphill trek is just as lonely, or lonelier. Topping the list are the CEO and board chair.

It’s been said that the “board chair and executive director comprise the key leadership fulcrum of nonprofit organizations. . . Building and nurturing this relationship must be a priority.” If the pair aren’t training, planning, packing, and climbing in tandem, they, the organization, and the board are in for trouble.


In leading, as in mountaineering, there are five essentials to a successful climb.

1. Trust and mutual respect are essential to a productive CEO/board chair partnership – and all the more so when one or the other is a governance novice. There’s tremendous benefit in having an experienced companion with you on the trek. Someone who’s climbed the same pitch or mountain before.

2. Shared purpose flows from trust and feeds it. Having the same peak in sight is essential. The best climbing partners plot their course before leaving base camp, stick with plan, and stick with each other. As Hiland describes, leadership pairs who were joined in purpose “worked together, with engaged boards, on issues of organizational vision, mission, and strategic focus.”

3. Organizational leadership and governance are often fraught with danger and drama, which makes proactive communication a must. Coming as each partner does with a different sight line, the CEO and board chair are able to spot trouble ahead and shout out a warning.

4. Because organizational factors can — and often do — shift unexpectedly, violently and fast, compromise, deference, and flexibility are requisites to the CEO/board chair relationship. Each knows his or her strengths and primary role, but each is able and ready to hold the rope – break the fall – should the other slip.

5. Even the most enthusiastic, seasoned climbers can grow weary and discouraged. At such times, it’s a tremendous blessing to enjoy the encouragement that comes from a well-chosen climbing partner.

As Jim Collins and Morton Hansen write in Great by Choice, the best leaders (10Xers, as they call them) know that “the ultimate hedge against danger and uncertainty is whom you have on the mountain with you.”

In fundraising, governance, or any other areas of organizational leadership, it’s essential to choose your climbing companions well.

What's your take on this topic?

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