Having served as both a superintendent and a school board member, I have experienced firsthand the difficulty of serving on a school board. It was not as easy as I thought. As a superintendent, I couldn’t understand why my board questioned things or why they didn’t go along with my great ideas, or so I thought. Upon becoming a board member in another district after retiring, I immediately experienced how board members can get sidetracked on the most minute things. But most of all, I saw how certain behaviors sabotaged meetings and kept real progress from taking place.

After conducting research on over 300 boards nationwide by viewing their meetings, some behaviors jump right out: the good, bad, and the ugly. Highly productive boards seem to have certain things in common and govern their meetings professionally, while others struggle from meeting to meeting like they are in a whirlwind. What creates good governance? Our observations reveal certain laws that we consider essential for boards to work together to achieve maximum results.

Boards of the future must shake loose of the status quo because real growth will come when boards become more aggressive in their expectations and work together as a team. Great governance comes when boards work to remove the obstacles holding them back from getting the results they are seeking.

  1. Law of the shield. This law protects boards from their critics and the naysayers trying to convince people they are ineffective. Shields are created when boards stand together on issues by locking their arms and working as a team. They don’t always vote unanimously, but they do agree to support the majority vote. Once members pull away from the group, chaos begins to rule.
  2. Law of the ego. Big egos sink ships, so they say. Unchecked egos in a meeting can be catastrophic. Boards that function well do it as a group with all members participating equally. When an ego rears its ugly head, meetings never run smoothly or productively. Egos must be checked at the door, and the other board members must intervene to stop this behavior in its tracks. Remember, your ego is not your amigo. In fact, the bigger your ego, the less you can see. Robert Schuller says that big egos have little ears.
  3. Law of false choices. Great boards don’t accept things at face value. They push for answers and refuse to accept things just because they are told that “we have no choice.” There are always choices. It will be in those choices that we find our true answers. We see boards back off great questions when they are told we have to do this or that. The big “why” question will often narrow things down for us. “Why can’t we do this?” “Why can’t we do that?” When the answer is no, then the really good boards find out why, and many times change it to their advantage.
  4. Law of hand slapping. Many boards realize that there are many rules and regulations that prevent them from achieving the success they are chasing. Many rules are carefully designed to keep us in a box, but real growth won’t be found in a box. To get extraordinary results, many boards see the need to go outside the boundaries. This law encourages boards not to be afraid of getting their hands slapped. This is where the real results can be found. They do what they need to do to get the results they are looking for. Good boards stretch the limits because that’s where the real results are.
  5. Law of subtraction. Really good boards don’t wait too long before they support the removal of those barriers that prevent progress. Subtracting people not performing well and programs not getting the desired results create the opportunity to make substantial gains in shorter periods of time. You can’t outwork bad leadership, and the more time you spend trying to fix it, the more dysfunctional your system becomes.
  6. Law of inches. Effective boards realize big results are hard to come by, so they look for inches. This law enables boards to celebrate small successes rather than waiting for the home runs. This inch by inch governance creates a message that good things are happening. Great boards find their inches because it keeps them afloat in difficult times. Our success comes in inches, not yards.
  7. Law of the system. This law clearly identifies the infrastructure the board has in place to guarantee positive results. Edward Deming said, “Ninety-four percent of the failure we experience is the result of the system, not the people.” All great coaches, leaders, and boards work from within a system of beliefs and performance. This law prevents boards from constantly blaming their problems on others. They work from a system that is designed for maximum productivity. Effective systems allow boards to feel comfortable in making decisions because they have strategies in place to draw from. As I heard one superintendent tell her board at a meeting we attended, “Our system is perfectly designed to get the results we are getting, and that’s not good.”
  8. Law of the shadow. This law brings issues out into the open. Many boards are caught up in the grip of a shadow. Those are things they keep in the dark but which loom over the district. Boards are afraid to bring these issues out into the open and discuss them so the whole world can hear. Elephants exist in every boardroom, and some boards have a way of dealing with them because they know no real progress will take place as long as shadows reign over the meetings. Productive boards know the danger of allowing elephants to set up shop in their meetings, so they simply shed light on issues everybody knows exist but everyone hesitates to discuss. We are powerless to make changes until we face our shadows. We have to expose it to the light, and once this is done, we can move on and deal with the future.
  9. Law of the mirror. The secret has been revealed as to what makes a good board, and that is the individual members who sit at the table. It is often said that a board is a place where very competent individuals can come together to form an incompetent board. Each board member matters and they hold the key to the effectiveness of the group. The secret is in the mirror. What does each individual member do to contribute to the success of the entire group? Getting people to work together is hard, but that is the key to good board work. Members accept responsibility for their own actions and do not blame others. If the meetings are getting off base, members immediately look in the mirror to see if they are the cause. It’s difficult, but it can be done.
  10. Law of One. One board, many voices, but ultimately one voice. Boards that speak with one voice can survive any obstacle that comes their way. In fact, it is the lifeblood of any organization. Disagree all you want, but leave with a combined purpose and speak the same language. Don’t allow critics to separate your voices because, once they see a chink in your armor, then you are setting yourself up for failure. By adhering to these laws, boards are enhancing their chances of being really exceptional. As boards get more in the crosshairs of the accountability movement, it will be essential that good governance be highlighted. The fact is that school boards control the destiny of the school districts. When the board works well, then so goes the system. And vice versa.

David E. Lee is an associate professor at the School of Education and Human Science, The University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg.

Reprinted with permission from American School Board Journal, February 2021. Copyright 2021 National School Boards Association. All rights reserved.