The Music Man syndrome and board member (mis)perceptions

I just returned from a board retreat, and once again, I’m in awe of the ability of board members to NOT see their organization as others see it. In fact, it’s the rare board that thinks of the organization as anything less than the bee’s knees. The best of its kind. Top flight. World class.

Superlatives fly when board members gather. At least, that’s my experience.

If you’re looking for organizational cheerleaders, a nonprofit board meeting is a great place to start. If you’re looking for organizational reality, well, that’s another matter.

Like the doting parents in the last scene of The Music Man, board members hear and see what they want to believe. Too many boards have become expert at deluding themselves. No conniving Harold Hills required. There’s spin enough in most boardrooms to keep the duped, duped.

Which, of course, is not the way to lead an organization — except into mediocrity or worse, out of existence.


There is a better way, however. Here’s what I tell board members every chance I get. Since you’ve already signed on for the duration, you might as well do the job right. And that begins with exchanging your rose-colored glasses for a pair of reality specs.

My reading on the return flight home from the retreat included the Summer issue of Nonprofit Quarterly where I ran across an on-the-mark observation. According to the authors of an article about organizational turnarounds, good governance begins with

recognizing the full nature and extent of the problem, something most nonprofit (and for-profit) boards tend to underestimate until it is too late. Generally, boards are unwilling or unable to take the drastic steps required. . . The literature is clear: the board must recognize when a turnaround is needed, and then fully support the tough decisions that have to be made by the executive leadership.

It’s great that board members care deeply about the causes to which they’ve committed their time. In fact, I can’t imagine why anyone would agree to serve if they didn’t. There aren’t enough perks associated with nonprofit board work to attract and retain the lukewarm.

But simply believing your cause is best in show doesn’t make it so. And hope without action won’t get an organization far.

So, dear board members, put away the pom-poms and dial down the cheering. If your organization is like most, it needs your attention even more than your admiration. There will be time enough for a parade another day.

What's your take on this topic?

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