Get your board off the bus and into the boat

Although Jim Collins’ caution about getting the right people on the bus is often cited in conversations about board member recruitment, it’s actually a curious metaphor for how to build a strong board.bus_trip_7013Consider this.

People on a bus don’t set direction. They don’t watch the road. They don’t worry about maintenance of the bus or the cost of filling it with fuel. They’re not involved in recruiting other riders. And it would be unusual for passengers to advocate for better highways or speak out in support of public transportation.

In other words, it doesn’t much matter who’s on the bus. Whether the right people or wrong, they just sit there. And that, my friends, is not what’s needed from members of governing boards. The challenges facing nonprofits are too great and the consequences of the work too important to fill board rosters with seat sitters.

I recently found a more useful metaphor to guide the recruitment process in an unlikely source. It came to me while reading The Boys in the Boat, Daniel James Brown’s riveting account of the unlikely gold medal performance by the University of Washington’s rowing team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The thesis of the book is this: Every person in the shell matters. As Brown explains:

One of the fundamental challenges in rowing is that when any one member of a crew goes into a slump the entire crew goes with him. A baseball team or a basketball team may very well triumph even if its star player is off his game. But the demands of rowing are such that every man or woman in a racing shell depends on his or her crewmates to perform almost flawlessly with each and every pull of the oar. The movements of each rower are so intimately intertwined, so precisely synchronized with the movements of all the others that any one rower’s mistake or subpar performance can throw off the tempo of the stroke, the balance of the boat, and ultimately the success of the whole crew. More often than not, it comes down to a lack of concentration on one person’s part (p. 89).

In other words, it makes all the difference who’s in the boat, especially if we’re in it to win. There can be no passivity, no laying back and leaving it others, no lapses of concentration. When rowing for a grand prize, we dare not trust the task to seat sitters – on the water or in the boardroom.


Part of what interested me about The Boys in the Boat is the similarity of the story Brown tells to that of my Uncle Hank Proctor, number 7 oar on the US 1952 Olympic gold medal-winning crew team. I remember the thrill of holding the oar my uncle used in the Olympic race while listening to him talk about the journey of a farm boy from Missouri to a spot on the Naval Academy’s heavyweight crew. Although my cousins and I likely didn’t get the significance at the time, in retrospect I appreciate that Uncle Hank’s telling was always about the team and what they accomplished together for school and country.

In a news release highlighting the 50th anniversary of the team’s Olympic win, Navy heavyweight head coach Rick Clothier said this about Annapolis’ boys in the boat: “The 1952 crew and all those men who rowed in the varsity crew from 1952-54 certainly must be regarded as one of America’s finest rowing eight-oared crews. . . The Great Eight continues to be an inspiration to our rowers, even fifty years after their greatest triumph.”

Which brings me back to the importance of choosing our metaphors carefully when thinking about board member recruitment. I’m all about finding the “right” people, but placing them on a bus (even if metaphorical) seems a colossal waste of talent. If we want a board to give exemplary service, the metaphor of a rowing shell is a better choice.

Think about it.

No one has organized a reunion for passengers on a bus. And even if beautifully framed, a ticket to ride isn’t likely to elicit awe or inspire future riders. But live into the metaphor of a race well rowed by a dedicated, in-synch team, and you’re on the way to board performance that is remembered and celebrated for years to come.

To be sure, not every board will bring home the gold. But if we truly believe that an organization will be no stronger than its board, at least in the long run, then we must recruit, orient, and educate board members with the grand prize in mind. We must shift the metaphor from bus to boat.

For more on this topic, see:

To be a difference maker, volunteer for the board development committee

Board Ts and Ts

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who has the fairest board of all?


  1. Donna Wiedeman says:

    I like this metaphor because it gets away from the “along for the ride” connotation of the bus imagery. But I’m struck that for a crew team to be successful, the members need significant amounts of training–both individually and together–which few institutions can/do provide and few individual board members seek out on their own. Trust, too, plays a huge role and generally can only develop fully over time. That said, board members spend limited time together annually and best practice has the make-up of the team changing every year or two. Does the very nature of board work prevent the kind of teamwork exemplified by a crew team? Then again, all metaphors fall apart when you look at them too closely…. (I recall one of the governance teams at an In Trust seminar many years ago likening board work to a jazz orchestra and I still like that one. You need the right instruments, played by people with considerable individual skill, who build on a theme to make it “more.”)

    • Thank you, Donna, for your thoughtful reply. You’re correct that few boards receive the level of training — corporately or as individuals — anywhere close to that of a gold medal crew team. But I’m not ready to give up on the metaphor yet. Rather, I would use the metaphor as an impetus to pump up commitments to quality orientation for new members and robust ongoing education for all members, including between meetings. With the technological tools at our fingertips, there’s no excuse for making meetings the whole of a board’s training time. That said, the metaphor will run out at some point, but it’s a great place to start.

      I remember the jazz orchestra metaphor from that long ago In Trust seminar and I, too, still like it. As I recall, the metaphor exercise was one of the more lively aspects of the seminars, with great creativity and wonderful word pictures.

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