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The Board Chair and Executive Director Relationship

The Board Chair and Executive Director Relationship

December 29, 2023
Howard Cohen

Organizations in general and small to medium nonprofit organizations in particular typically have two leaders: an executive director and a board chair. To be sure, the leaders in this duality have different roles to play. 

In theory, a board chair leads the work of setting policy, approving the organization’s strategic and operational plans, reviewing finances and financial transactions, and hiring and evaluating the executive director.  In theory, the executive director keeps the organization focused on its mission and vision, leads the development of strategic and operational plans approved by the board, oversees the creation of an annual budget and participates in, or supervises, the management of the organization. Theory provides an insightful starting point, but we shouldn’t forget that when theory is applied to practice, friction becomes part of the equation.

Setting aside for another post truly  dysfunctional organizations – in which, for example, the board chair does not have the support of the board or presides over a deeply divided board or in which the executive director does not have the support of the management team or in which either the board chair or the executive director is a tyrant or a harasser – even in the best of relationships, maintaining board chair/executive director alignment takes work.

In an ideal world, the board chair and the executive director work as a well-coordinated team. They pull together to help the organization realize its goals. Think of two oxen yoked together plowing a field. If the plowing is efficient the oxen are pulling in the same direction at the same rate of speed. Moreover, each ox must stay in its lane. 

An organization’s team is only effective if the board chair and the executive director are pulling together. People being people, inevitably there is drift. There will be times when each encroaches on the responsibilities of the other – whether intentionally or not. It is often the case that the board chair and the executive director have ideas about how the other might best accomplish his or her work and may wish to act on them. This is only natural because each can work effectively only if the other does so as well. The ongoing health of an organization depends on their ability to get back on track.

The lion’s share of responsibility for making this arrangement work falls to the board chair. The board chair needs to find an executive director that he or she believes will carry out the board’s directives. The executive director needs to work at acting under the direction of the board through its chair.

Healthy organizations develop processes for maintaining board chair/executive director alignment. The initial focus should be on how a disagreement will be resolved rather than on the specifics of the disagreement itself. This requires, at least, agreeing on a common body of information that is relevant to resolving the disagreement, agreeing on who will be brought into the resolution discussion, agreeing on a time frame for making a decision and agreeing to move on once a decision is reached.

It’s up to the board to insist that some such process be in place to resolve board chair/executive director differences. Processes that are accepted in advance of using them confer legitimacy on their outcomes. The alternative to having such a process is not pretty. The board chair could simply assert the right to make the decision that resolves the difference. Although the board chair has this right, the executive director is then put in a position of complying with a decision that is forced upon him or her or finding a way to subvert the decision while staying under the radar. Either course of action is likely to end badly.

A positive relationship between a board chair and an executive director can be powerful and certainly worth fostering. Recognition that it can fall out of alignment and reliance on a process to get it back on track are important elements of organizational health.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.