I am going to make a bold claim: board unanimity is not a sign – not necessarily, at least – that a board is an effective board. The same would apply to a committee or a senate or another governing body, such as a senior leadership team. This may seem like an overstatement, but hear me out.
By a lack of unanimity, I do not mean a conflicted board. I do not mean a board that is so polarized that it is incapable of making a hard decision or choice. Rather, what I mean is this: that a board is able to do what it needs to do, including making a difficult choice or action, even if not all board members are in agreement with what it is that needs to be done.
Now perhaps before I go any further with this, I should stress that unanimity is needed for some key and essential action items: the appointment of a CEO for a non-profit or college or the senior pastor for a church, for example. Further, when the mission is reviewed, surely we all need to be on board that (1) this is our mission and vision for this organization and, (2) these are the core values that will inform our work and the implementation of our vision. And if we are not of one voice on these questions or issues, then we go back to the drawing board.
Further, I would suggest that effective boards are often in full agreement on boundary issues; they have a common mind and have a solid consensus on most matters on which they need to make a ruling or adopt a recommendation.
However, I wonder if one of the indicators of an effective board is the capacity for a vote on a crucial or difficult issue – something controversial, perhaps – where a decision is needed and the action is taken, even with one or more votes to the contrary. A moderator or chair might choose to postpone an action so that those who are in the minority know that their perspective or concern is taken seriously. But typically, when a board never does something of this nature, there are one or two who assume that they have veto power on the actions of the board. And the consequence is that the minority voice on the board actually rules the roost. Not for a moment am I suggesting that the majority is always right. But, let’s at least acknowledge those times when the majority did have a clear sense of the right course of action and the minority kept the board or the committee from making a wise and courageous decision.
All of this is only possible if there is a board chair who is an effective moderator of the deliberative process: a chair who can read the room, recognize what is happening and call for the vote even though it will not likely be a unanimous action. And then the moderator can acknowledge, with respect, that minority voice – so that they do not feel dismissed or discounted. But the key at this point is that the board was able to make a tough decision and did not succumb to the temptation to only act with complete consent.
And further, that we as members of the board or committee, can speak our minds and vote in the minority and graciously accept the decision where we were outvoted. That means that an effective committee or board member graciously accepts the reality that at times they will be outvoted.