The still-popular 1980s computer game, Pacman, involves a yellow head that eats pellets while avoiding enemies that try to destroy it. The game provides a helpful illustration of governance principles for boards who oversee organisations. Essentially, there are three key roles that a board member will play in supporting an organisation’s key leader. This needs to be done collectively for optimum support, but a board member needs to be a PACman in relation to people and circumstances that can potentially undermine the head leader who they oversee.
1. Protection – When the leader(s) or their family members come under attack, the board need to offer real support. In churches, this is especially important as there are few other contexts where a leader goes to ‘work’ with their family. Churches can create expectations and pressures which are not easily separated from family life, many of which involve considerable emotion. In addition to indexing or setting reasonable salaries, boards need to offer public and private support for their leader whose emotional wellbeing is vital for organisational health.
2. Accountability – A senior leader needs to have a carefully defined and clearly understood role description. This needs to be fairly evaluated by balancing the factors within that person’s control and those outside it. When constitutions, relevant policies, role descriptions, values or expectations are unclear or outdated, the board needs to take some responsibility for setting and fixing these, but the leader should then be released to lead within set parameters and without being micromanaged in day-to-day operations.
3. Cheerleading – Private disputes and differences are normal where values and outcomes are important. However, there should be public confidence in leaders and an amplification of their vision. Talking up good stories and great outcomes does not need to be viewed cynically as somehow masking of a different reality. Rather, truthful positivity is vital for creating momentum and a great culture. Boards are custodians of values and must defend and promote them with unified and purposeful enthusiasm. Enough will be going wrong at the best of times without needing a negative focus that will only drag people down further.
A board member is a PACman who doesn’t primarily exist to play the devil’s advocate. Instead, looking out for threats that can subtly undermine staff and leaders provides a kind of grand-parenting role in shaping culture. Listening to people is a key component of this action, but never to the extremes such as control or collusion that can divide and conquer organisations deserving of greatness.