A leader’s job: How I handle complaints from a volunteer board

July 23, 2012

Sarah Eaton - leadership blogThis year, I took on the role of President for a non-profit board that I sit on. I have sat on boards before and held the position of President before. At that time, I was in my early 30s. Now, a decade later, with a completely different board, it feels very different. I feel less “attached” to the position itself, but feel a deeper responsibility to lead wisely.

I often ponder the Native American concept about considering the impact our decisions we make today will have on the people living seven generations in the future. This shifts my perspective from the idea of trying to balance everyone’s input and views today to a more complex model that also considers the long-term impact of our decisions, into a future that we can neither know, nor predict.

The decisions we make today are not just about us as a board. Our decisions are not even about our members. They are about both the elected directors and the members we represent; and not only those who are involved today but those whose lives may be impacted in the future. Our leadership decisions impact not only our work today, but also the future.

I recently had a board member come to me with a complaint. He seemed angry and insistent that his ideas be heard and implemented immediately.

As a younger leader, I may have gotten angry with another board member insisting that I do something a certain way. Or I may have caved into his insistence and done what he wanted without thinking it through, in an attempt to keep the peace.

Now, I think that my first job is to listen. Instead of being emotionally involved, I am curious as to what he has to say. I am wondering about his point of view, his insights and his concerns. I did not promise that I would agree with him and I also promised that I would not ignore him. I promised to listen.

After I have listened, I have said that I will do one of the following:

  1. Address the concerns in a fair and just manner (take action).
  2. Explain why the concerns cannot be addressed in the exact manner that the complainant would like (give a clear explanation that is solidly grounded in evidence).
  3. If I lack adequate expertise, then take the concerns to either a governing body (i.e. the rest of the board) or a specialist with more more depth of experience (e.g. staff, outside consultants, etc.) who can offer guidance, provide additional knowledge and/or propose a course of action.
I take a strength-based approach to my leadership work. That means that I start with the assumption that everyone brings strengths, talent and expertise to the table.

Starting with that assumption changes the leadership game. It means that rather than reacting immediately, that I take the time to consider the strength that the individual brings to the situation. This often means setting my own opinions and feelings aside. I may be angry or frustrated, but I still have a job to do.

Being in a leadership position doesn’t mean that we have all the answers. I means that others are trusting us to be wise and fair.

I believe that as leaders, our first job is always to listen. Then ask questions. Then think seven generations ahead. Then either seek more advice or take action.

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