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The enlightened Board Chair: Seven mantras for effective leadership

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Despite an increasing remit and recognition of the role, there has been an over-reliance on assumptions about boardroom activity due to the well-recorded difficulties in obtaining access to boardrooms. As a result, much of the existing research has focused on the CEO's leadership style, leaving a gap in our understanding of what makes an effective Chair in today’s environment.

Our recent study aimed to fill this void by interviewing 57 corporate elite board members from FTSE 350 companies in the UK. Through face-to-face, in-depth interviews and qualitative analysis, we have been able to provide new insights into the best practices of Chairs in the largest UK listed companies.

Our findings showed that effective board leadership nowadays requires an enlightened approach and we identified seven commonly employed ‘mantras’ that characterise board leadership:

1. Support the CEO: Rather than adopting an adversarial role competing for power or recognition, effective Chairs act as mentors who bring out the best in the CEO without feeling threatened by their accomplishments.

2. Lead with values: Ethical conduct and adherence to ethical principles such as fairness, truthfulness and integrity are central to the leadership approach of top-performing Chairs. Still remaining performance driven, they are also values focused, deeply imbedding those values into boards and executive teams.

3. Exercise influence, not positional power: Forgoing positional authority, effective chairs earn the willing respect of board members through their extensive experience and wisdom. Influence rather than brute force is used in order to accomplish their objectives.

4. Compose diverse boards: Effective Chairs assemble boards with a diversity of thought, experience and perspectives suitable for the organisation's unique needs. Homogeneity is avoided in favour of complementary skill sets.

5. Communicate inclusively: Enlightened chairs are thoughtful and inclusive communicators. Rather than dominating discussions, they facilitate an open forum where all voices are heard before rendering their own views. Stakeholder perspectives and concerns are carefully considered and integrated into board decision making.

6. Resolve conflicts intuitively: Occasional conflicts are inevitable with highly accomplished board members due to the contentious nature of the issues being discussed and the domineering personalities of some of the individuals. Effective chairs deftly navigate tense situations with tact, intuitiveness and fairness. They take discussions offline if needed and avoid forcing premature votes.

7. Reflect and course correct: Continuous improvement is prioritised through frequent board evaluations and honest self-reflection on strengths and weaknesses. Adjustments are made proactively and pre-emptively.

In many ways, the mantras uncovered by our study represent a departure from traditional corporate leadership centred on control, power and hierarchy. The enlightened Board Chair leads through influence, inclusion, moral integrity and an emphasis on collective wisdom over individual prowess.

As organisations strive to become more ethical, sustainable and attuned to diverse stakeholder needs, these seven mantras offer a potential blueprint for re-imagining board leadership in the 21st century.

Professor Andrew Kakabadse

Programme Director, The Board Directors' Programme

Professor Nada Korac Kakabadse

Professor of Policy, Governance and Ethics
Published 18 April 2024
Henley news Leading insights

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