Crisis of Leadership in Parsi Trusts

Trustees of our Parsi Charitable Trusts are saddled with enormous legal, financial and moral responsibilities. Largely viewed as a thankless job, those on the seat of power often call it a ‘crown of thorns’. Yet, there are many who will spend vast sums of money and ‘move mountains’, so to say, to either attain or retain the ‘hot seat’ of trusteeship. What is the motivating factor? Is it ‘power’? Is it the highly questionable ‘social status’ that trusteeship brings? Is it the ‘kick’ one gets out of this thankless job? Or is it ‘vested interest’ that certain critics hush about?

Generally speaking, there are three types of trustees. First, are those who are involved with a sense of commitment, purpose and direction and who consider the involvement as a responsibility taken on as a labour of love; Second, are those who drift in routinely on request of friends or relatives on the board; and Third, are those who consider such positions as a ladder for social mobility, networking opportunities, wielding power, gaining fame (which mostly ends in infamy) and generally, to further their own interests.

The Ideal Trustee: Nancy Axelrod, in ‘A Guide for New Trustees’, states, “An ideal ‘trustee’ is a person with the versatility of Leonardo da Vinci, the financial acumen of Bernard Baruch and the scholarly bent of Erasmus.” That’s quite a tall order and one wonders if such an ideal trustee can ever be found.

Qualities Of A ‘Good Trustee’: A ‘good trustee’ is expected to have interest in the work of the trust and commitment to the trust’s aims and objects. He/she should have reasonable intelligence and competence and should be one who is respected in the community and by stakeholders. The individual should also have capacity for growth and remain sensitive to change and new issues affecting the community. The ability to work in concert with others also needs to be underscored though one should never fight shy of standing up to one’s convictions.

A good trustee would respect the right of other board members and staff to differ/disagree and he/she would dissent, if necessary, but accept with grace the majority decision.

Generally speaking, trustees are expected to provide leadership and vision and give the trust a sense of direction. They are expected to set the policy and take responsibility. Holding the organization together, motivating staff and mobilizing resources are also important duties. They are expected to build and nurture an ethical, sensitive, motivated and responsible team and discourage exaggerated or misleading claims.

Very often trustees, like our local and global politicians tend to take credit for all the good that happens and blame either their other colleagues or staff when things go wrong due to bad decision making.

Trustworthy Leadership: Leadership is the ability of a person to have clear vision, out of which he/she sets the goals and objectives, which can then form the basis of an organization’s parameters. It is essentially a dynamic process of making people more effective, increasing their competence and through them, achieving goals. The effectiveness of a good leader lies in his ability to share and develop leadership in others through empowerment, thereby increasing their competence and accountability.

And speaking of empowerment, any system devoid of power is a dead system. However, in any organizational system, the power should be balanced and its concentration, either at one source or at few places, could create serious problems.

Power: David McClelland suggests four positive ways in which power can be used:

  1. A Conservative Style where the focus is on discipline and hard work – here, the emphasis is on meticulous planning, good training as well as perpetuating the traditions and strengths of the organization;
  2. An Expressive Style in which the leader inspires and makes his team function as a family;
  3. An Assertive Style which is basically the use of power to control others, set directions for work and increase organizational efficiency;
  4. The Generative Style where the emphasis is on generating more power by utilizing the resources of the team to develop systems and strong performance groups, by identifying the strengths of the individuals in the team and using them for building a synergy in the organization.

Team Spirit: A good leader has the ability to help diverse personalities to merge into an effective social whole. He can stimulate them, rather than browbeat them, and can help the team use all their abilities and experience at optimum level and usually help the team discover abilities they never realized they possessed.

A ‘good trustee’ treats his colleagues on the board as also the staff as a partner. A ‘partner in change’ or to be more specific a partner in making his community or for that matter the world, a better place to live in. Sadly, many of our present-day trustees lack team spirit. A good team of trustees has the ability to work together towards a common vision. It enables common people to attain uncommon results.

However, in some trusts one finds team spirit of a divisive type. “Are you in my team or that other trustee’s team?” is a common refrain. Even at board meetings, the warring teams fracture important decisions.  The result – stunted growth of the organization, poor public image and a distinct disservice to the community. Good board meetings are often key to good decision making and it is usually at the meeting table that the quality of the organization and its leaders is truly revealed.

Qualities Of A Trustee: In ‘The Role of The Board and Board Members’, Brian O’Connell states, “For years I have been watching boards and making mental notes of the personal qualities of people who become the formal or informal leaders. If I was restricted to just one quality, I would single out the ability to start and end every analysis and evaluation with the standard, ‘What is right?’” According to O’Connell, while the second most important quality is fairness, the third is “controlled ambition”.

The fourth important characteristic, according to O’Connell, is “flexibility”. He feels, “The person who knows what is right, is tough, efficient and ambitious, and has had success and recognition, tends to become awfully impressed with himself or herself, and begins not to look at each new situation in its own right. Adding flexibility to the blend of fairness, sensitivity, and imagination helps the individual and organization to rise.” And, finally, Emerson’s famous statement, “Nothing was ever accomplished without enthusiasm”. O’Connell lists “enthusiasm” as the fifth most important quality of a leader. The most important principle involved in managing differences of opinion is in keeping disagreements impersonal and agreeing to disagree in an “agreeable manner”.

A good leader respects the rights of one or more of his/her team members to disagree and encourages constructive criticism, usually pushing the critic to suggest an alternative course, if there is one. In every organization, the team’s energy should be harnessed in fighting for the cause and not against one another. Sadly, some of our trusts waste their time in fighting and browbeating each other at board meetings. They conveniently forget that excellence on the trust board is not about getting ahead of others but getting ahead of ourselves.

Striving For Excellence: Excellence on a trust board is all about going beyond one’s call of duty and doing more than what others expect. It is about striving and maintaining the highest standard day to day and looking after the smallest detail. It involves going the extra mile and doing your best in everything and in every way. It is the daily triumph of integrity over skepticism and the determination to make a difference in this world, despite the odds.

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