What Volunteer Leaders Think About Leadership

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As credit unions have grown in assets, so has discussion of what comprises leadership. Not surprisingly, it's the subject of much discussion when credit union CEOs (or those aspiring to be) gather.

But what is often missing in this discussion is board members. They are, after all, supposed to lead the leaders, though many-through either a lack of backbone or poor governance policies or a combination of both-end up being led themselves by an overly dominant chairman (more on that from one CU, below) or a CEO who likes his board so in the dark those CSI folks couldn't find them.

But what do board members themselves think about leadership? While in Maui (purely for the sake of CU Journal readers, of course) recently to speak to a conference of volunteers, the issue was the subject of much discussion. Which I guess shouldn't be too surprising, as the host of the meeting was the Volunteer Leadership Institute.

In this case leading the discussion was Stedman Graham, the business consultant and author who readily acknowledges people come to hear him speak because, despite his lengthy list of accomplishments, he's still "Oprah's boyfriend." Graham pulled more than a dozen people from the audience during his several-hour presentation on achieving success, to talk about leadership as board members.

One Oregon CU board member noted the issue of leadership was crucial during its recent interviews of CEO candidates. "We had such high expectations," she observed. "But it came down to something succinct. Leadership is earned and we would know it when we see it. We wanted someone who could replicate success."

That same board member said leadership also applies to the board itself, including raising the painful issue of the board's composition. "Leadership," she added, "is getting the right people on the board and the wrong people off."

Graham said his view is that the first step in leadership is not just taking the initiative, but taking it with integrity. Whoever takes that step can expect to walk alone, he suggested, claiming that just 1% of the population is made up of people with initiative. But there is good news: "So you have no competition when leading," he stated, before adding, "Leaders are self-assured and pay attention to details. A leader has to be able to articulate a vision and inspire others. If people don't believe in the leaders, nothing gets done."

Graham had earlier asked each table of board members to discuss the issue of leadership and fittingly, many volunteered to step forward and talk of what they had debated. Our group was divided, but one common point was a leader is someone who can bring people to a place where they would not go by themselves. "It's also important for a leader to give people a full picture; that's what inspires people," the board member said. "Otherwise, when people work in just one area, they don't see the big picture, and they can get very discouraged. Leaders need to know who has fallen behind and either bring them up or let them go."

When Graham pressed for what effect leadership has had on their own credit union and board meetings, one person noted that its new governance policy means the board isn't spending time on "picking the paper towels. We let managers manage."

Another person shared that when he first joined the board, it was anything but a pleasant experience. "I noticed when I first came to the board it was full of backroom politics," he said. "There was no discussion of the issues and there was growing discontent and a lot of arbitrary decisions were being made. Staff felt disconnected from the board. We had a rule where the board meeting had to be over in an hour. We finally nominated someone to also be a candidate for chairman, which I think surprised our previous chairman, who had been the Supreme Rule and Dictator forever. I think the old chairman was stricken by a 4-4 vote. He had no idea he had no mandate. We got a new chairman and now everyone on the board participates. It's more of a family. It's a much more pleasant atmosphere and you can see it in our staff."

Observed another volunteer, "We found a team reflects the leaders, even the bad ones."

One Texas CU board member also talked about its recent hiring of a new CEO. "We had become so comfortable with our CEO who had been there for 28 years that when we hired a new CEO we were looking for someone who would be revolutionary, not evolutionary. Some of the old staff who had been there with the old CEO had his same vision and no outside vision. For those who have had a CEO for a long time it's worth it to step outside and get another view of the credit union."

Graham observed that many people will go to a job for 30 years, even if they hate it. "Anybody can get a job. Can they get a life?" he asked.

Not all of the discussion was so serious. When Graham asked board members about some of the "unwritten rules" within their credit unions, one person shouted out, "Don't steal the money." To which Graham asked, "That's not written down in your credit union?" He then pressed on, asking, "What are some of the other rules?"

"Don't get caught," shouted out another volunteer.

Frank J. Diekmann is Editor of The Credit Union Journal.

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