Behavioral Governance

An emerging model of board development including coaching and feedback

David E. Lee and James T. Fox

If board training was the answer, the question was probably: What do school boards spend thousands of dollars on every year with little to show for these expenditures?

We go to countless seminars, conventions, and conferences yearly only to get information that we never seem to put into action. For some reason, we think a day or two of training will take us where we desire to be. The training and consulting arena is full of galloping gurus promising to fix whatever we need fixing. Consequently, only to find out, after thousands of dollars later, that it didn’t sink in or it was never utilized. In fact, many Boards attend so many of these meetings that they get publicly recognized for their participation in the form of plaques and certificates. Looks good to the public, but we must ask ourselves—What real change has taken place?

Have you ever wondered why all this training, attending of workshops and conferences, books, and videos, produce so minor change in what boards do? The major challenge is to turn this knowledge into action, but therein lies the problem. Board training is not the problem—rather, it’s what we don’t do with the training—we don’t implement. To become a peak performing Board, we need help implementing what we have supposedly “learned.”

However, there is one caveat: Our research clearly revealed that the silver bullet in conducting highly productive board meetings was NOT how the meeting was structured, but rather how board members BEHAVED during the meeting. Knowledge and behavior are two very different things. Board members may have the knowledge that they should act in a manner that fosters teamwork and productivity—but, really behaving in this manner is the real difference maker. Unfortunately, many board members don’t think they are the problem and see no need to change their behavior. One rogue board member can sabotage an entire meeting by the way they act and speak.

Board Behaviors Matter

If you think board behavior doesn’t matter, think again. Our research team, after personally observing over 250 board meetings nationwide, found that negative board behavior is rampant and destroying any real chance of system success. This contributes to high superintendent turnover and the inability of systems to be able to attract the best teachers and leaders. Good board work is about how we behave, how we interact with others, how we engage our colleagues, how we inspire people to action, and how we work together as a team. Our behavior shapes our path to quality.

Board member behaviors are the key determinant in school boards fulfilling their mission and vision—academic achievement. This was the key finding of Dr. David Lee’s research on school boards. From this ground-breaking research, the Center for Board Behavior Reform (CBBR) was created. The bottom-line: school board training is essential, but not enough. If training alone could produce extraordinary results for local school systems, then there would be no nagging school board issues. According to recent research done at The University of Southern Mississippi by Dr. David E. Lee, and his research team, leadership matters at the School board level. This ground-breaking research links the correlations between school board behaviors and student achievement. The research shows that the more negative, unorganized, and political a school board is, the lower the student achievement. It matters how school boards conduct their business and the evidence is clear in and how they implement what they know. There is no training out there on addressing the behaviors of boards, but that is where the problem lies.

A New Model of Board Development: Behavioral Governance

It’s time for an innovative approach to board development—Behavioral Governance. This is an approach to board development where board members become increasingly aware of and modify their behaviors for the sake of peak board performance. Without getting too technical, this approach is built upon the theoretical framework of behavioral reinforcement, a psycho-dynamic approach, collective efficacy, and adaptive leadership. However, it may be easier to describe by explaining the four key components of Behavioral Governance:

  1. Training: The first key component of Behavioral Governance is board training. Yes, board training—but for a very specific purpose. The purpose of this training is to orient board members to this paradigm shift in board development. The training clearly explains this new model of Behavioral Governance solidifies the reality that individual board member behaviors matter. Board members are already experts at spotting one of their own colleagues acting badly. But, to re-shift their focus upon their own behaviors—this takes training and a deeper understanding of how boards can achieve peak performance.
  2. External Behavioral Coach: The second key component of Behavioral Governance is the role of an external behavioral coach. Arguably, this component is what makes this emerging model of board development stand out from all other models. This component and the next are the two essential ingredients of realizing positive change. Think about this, boards receive financial audits all the time—it is a mandatory process that is exercised by an external observer to protect the financial interests of the stakeholders. But, the focus of this external behavioral coach has nothing to do with finances—rather, it has everything to do with monitoring, auditing and encouraging board member behaviors. This requires recorded board meetings that the external behavioral coach can watch and replay, if needed, for spotting board member behaviors that need to be addressed. Changing a person’s behavior is a monumental task, but it all begins with an external behavioral coach who has a trained eye and ear to pick up on behavioral issues that need to be addressed and positive behaviors that need to be reinforced through encouragement. Thus, this leads directly into the third component.
  3. Timely and Confidential Feedback: The third key component of Behavioral Governance is timely and confidential feedback. Behavioral theorists know that optimal feedback for behavior change is immediate. For the possibility of real change to be realized, the external behavioral coach must provide feedback to each individual board member as soon as possible—for example, within 48 hours of having received the recording of the board meeting. In addition to timely feedback, trust between the external behavioral coach and individual board members can only be achieved through absolute confidentiality of the feedback. With any violation of confidentiality, Behavioral Governance will disintegrate.
  4. Time: The fourth and final key component of Behavioral Governance is based upon the fact that true change takes time. At the CBBR, we recommend that a period of one year is optimal for this process. The goal of Behavioral Governance is that individual board member’s meta-cognitive processes eventually take the place of the external behavioral coach. In other words, the goal is that board members will monitor their own behaviors and adjust themselves through self-discipline, without the need of the external coach. Again, it takes time and an iterative process between the external behavioral coach and individual board members to realize true behavioral change.

From Dysfunction to Peak Board Performance

So, change is needed for dysfunctional boards to be transformed into peak performing boards. The current status? -school boards are an institution in trouble; Some of our board meetings are a circus. Personalities, politics, and hidden agendas become standard operating procedure. Boards are now getting in the crosshairs in the accountability movement, which should have taken place a long time ago. Whether you agree or not, the school board is the group that determines the fate of the district. Many times, boards hinder and become barriers to the success of a system.

Even if you were thinking about your own board while reading the paragraph above, you know that the mission of your school board is too critical for any individual board member(s) behaviors to diminish your intended outcome of student achievement. School board work is too important and consequential to maintain the status quo. It’s way past time for a new model of board development.

David E. Lee ( is associate professor of the Department Of Educational Research & Administration, in the College of Education & Psychology, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

James T. Fox ( is professor of practice of the Department of Educational Leadership and Graduate Studies, Seidel School of Education and Professional Studies, Salisbury University, Salisbury, Maryland.


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