Friday, June 13, 2014

Unlocking the passion of the (board) explorer

There's passion, and then there's "the passion of the explorer."

As someone who holds up "passion for mission" as the board member bottom line, and admitted ideal, I am intrigued by what Hagel is describing in the video below.

I also am inspired to ponder what might actually happen in our nonprofit boardrooms - and our communities - if we managed to foster the three qualities that make up the passion that Hagel describes here in our governing bodies.

Hagel doesn't address nonprofits or their boards directly. But the environments he describes ring quite familiar, and the three attributes feel quite applicable to our organization's purposes. I invite you to watch the brief (5:53) video and imagine how we might apply it to spark deeper commitment and efficacy within our boards.

Three attributes feed the "passion of the explorer," according to Hagel (1:21):

  • Long-term commitment to domain driven by a desire for impact (sound familiar?)
  • Questing, welcoming new challenges with excitement and a drive to "get right to it" and 
  • Connecting with others in related domains, to learn from them and collectively work for a solution to the challenge.

The latter two attributes are dispositions, fueling "an orientation towards action." I especially like that in the context of nonprofit boards. Plenty of smart people who care about our missions fill our rosters. Unless they - and we - are prepared to act, the impact we desire will elude us.

I was interested in the statistics Hagel offered regarding the percentage of individuals studied who could be considered to have the "passion of the explorer." It's a tiny number, only 11 percent.
I immediately thought, "Find and recruit these people to our boards ASAP!" Beyond that initial impulse, I thought about whether that might (roughly) represent the "explorer" core that we naturally end up recruiting. I also wondered, do we respect and nurture that once we have these individuals in the fold? Or do we end up inadvertently squashing that exploratory impulse?

Why is the "explorer" contingency so miniscule? Basically, our workplaces drive it right out of us.

"They want predictability, reliability - somebody who can follow instructions," Hagel says of the typical corporate structures. In these environments, "failure is not an option" and people are conditioned to manage or avoid risk at all costs. People who embody the "passion of the explorer" are unpredictable. They occasionally and inevitably fail along the way. That makes them "dangerous," at least in our traditional work environments.

A couple of thoughts that come to mind immediately as I revisit Hagel's observations here. First, many of our board members spend their work lives in these kinds of environments. We may invite or cajole them to mix things up, to be expansive in imagining a better world and govern from a place of abundance. But that may be in direct opposition to what is expected of them where they spend a big part of their lives. Second, even small steps can feel pretty risky for a small, cash-strapped nonprofit and the board charged with sound stewardship of its limited resources.

It's easy to talk about generative governance environments, but the leap for the typical board member can be Grand Canyon-sized without some major assistance.

Hagel shared a more heartening number: at least 45 percent carry at least one of the three attributes within us. We likely have something important to contribute to a collective "passion of the explorer." But the board environments in which we work must encourage us to use our existing strengths and nurture the "explorer" attributes that may be bigger personal stretches.

Hagel points out a choice all organizations have: we can have safe and predictable as an organization, or we an have the elements for "extreme performance improvement."

Are our nonprofits brave enough to make the latter choice?

Will we accept - even welcome - the element of risk that accompanies the "extreme performance improvement" needed to help our boards reach their full potential?

 Do our board environments engage all three attributes in its members?

Can we - will we - find ways to nurture the "passion of the explorer" that lies within our boards?

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