Commentary: A leader’s tale

By John Guy

Jeff Thomas is a leader. In one place he achieved informality; in another, he failed to obtain transparency. 

John Guy is a wealth manager and the author of “Middle Man, a Broker’s Tale.”

In this fable, Jeff became president of his neighborhood association, one of tens of thousands of such groups that plod forward with inexperienced board members and leaders, all somehow accomplishing good works, albeit slowly and sometimes painfully, but Jeff knew an important principle, widely accepted, enshrined in both tradition and rules of order: the chair of a meeting may set time, place, setting, and agenda.

Jeff changed the setting. Instead of starting meetings five minutes late, as board members scrambled to unfold and place cafeteria-style tables and chairs in an open U formation, he established a circle of club-house couches and folding chairs with no priority seating. Anyone could sit anywhere. Neighbors could join board members in an informal arrangement that displayed no inherent difference in status. “We are all neighbors,” he said, “even though only some may vote on policy.”

Discomfort and awkwardness prevailed for a meeting or two, but that sense faded quickly as people warmed to the implied inherent equality, the elimination of the seating arrangement that conveyed board-member superiority, a sense that persons on one side of the table sit in judgment of those on the other side. Meetings no longer appeared formal and stilted. They were “neighborly.”

Jeff also modified the agenda. In place of reports by every board member, each having an administrative function such as swimming pool or infrastructure or communications, he asked for comments only from those having something to say, a specific message to convey, not words emanating from an implied requirement to speak. While words from anyone were welcome, only those “with something to say or report” or a need to ask for comment and advice, elected to speak. Naturally, and expectedly, time devoted to reports was cut in half.

In place of the tradition that only board members administer tangible functions such as social events and holiday celebrations, Jeff asked other neighbors to act as project chairs thereby diversifying and expanding neighborhood involvement. One result was a larger group of interested volunteers. Another was that more neighbors applied for positions on the board.

Unfortunately, Jeff failed on a larger stage after he was elected a national director of the Future Progress Association. At his first board meeting, Jeff might have destroyed any chance for advancement by expressing amazement at the size of his hotel room, a giant of a place with two bedrooms, large bathroom, and desk space for a CEO, not to mention the fireplace. He wondered aloud who paid. The answer: “these rooms are comped, a normal benefit of convention planning,” which, to Jeff, meant members pay. Over his four-year term, Jeff calculated almost $5,000 in personal yearly benefits such as air tickets, meals, and free registration to national events, in return for attending quarterly board meetings, most accomplishing little. 

More important to Jeff was discovery that the national board operated in secret: no agendas to all members, no minutes, limited distribution of financial statements, and most obvious was closed board meetings attended only by directors and staff unless an outsider appeared as an expert or project chair. One such person was required to sit outside the closed-door meeting until his appointed time. No transparency here. Even national organization politics were secret because the board is self-perpetuating: existing directors vote for both their leaders and for future board members, all behind closed doors. A few years after he left the board, he requested an opportunity to appear regarding a contentious proposed policy. Not only was he denied the opportunity to appear, if only by telephone conference. He received a five-page letter arguing in favor of the proposed policy, though his views had not been heard.

Informality won. Transparency zero. 

John Guy is a wealth manager and author of “Middle Man, A Broker’s Tale,” which has not been read by over 350 million Americans. 

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