Organizing in the News: Lessons from Governor Bob McDonnell on Board of Director Service

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell being interviewed by LENS magazine, June 4, 2012. Photo by Michaele White. (c) Governor of Virginia. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

The news here in Virginia has been dominated by the drama at the University of Virginia (perhaps the most prestigious university in our state) regarding the ouster of President Teresa A. Sullivan. If you haven’t been following the story, members of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors met with President Sullivan and threatened to vote to oust her from her role. She then resigned. Now, an ongoing dispute questions why she was asked to resign so abruptly and questions the role of the Board in making this decision.

Virginia governor Bob McDonnell has now sent a stern letter to the Board requiring them to resolve the issue of the Presidency of the University of Virginia by this Wednesday, including a full explanation as to their actions. Should they fail to do so, Governor McDonnell indicates he will ask the entire board to resign!


This has all been very fascinating to observe. Governor McDonnell’s letter gives us all a little to think about when we serve on any sort of leadership body, from corporate Boards to church or school committees.

Leadership Lessons from Governor Bob McDonnell’s letter.

1. “[E]liminate . . . uncertainty . . . immediately.”

If you are involved in a hugely controversial decision, your best course is to act as quickly as you can with a firm decision. If the decision is communicated in a firm and final manner, people will adjust to it, move on and make other plans. When people believe there is a chance to change the decision, the uncertainty lingers and causes unnecessary distraction from the organization’s critical mission, in this case, the education of some of the brightest minds our state has to offer.

2. “Board actions on major personnel or policy decisions should have a clear explanation of the decision.”

Much like a legal opinion, a controversial decision requires a rational explanation as to what alternatives were considered and why one course was chosen over another. Simply hiding behind the authority of the Board to do whatever it likes for any reason is unprofessional and undermines the Board’s authority.

3. “Make objective decisions without regard to any outside political, personal or media pressure.”

Commonsense advice but today we usually see the opposite.

4. “Act as a unified board when your deliberations are done. While no one expects unanimous votes on this or other major issues, the Board must speak with one, united voice once decisions are made.”

Reading this from a legal background, my first instinct was to think of the Supreme Court. When the Supreme Court issues a final decision, the justices who disagree with the decision can publish their dissenting opinion explaining why they would have decided otherwise. Bob McDonnell’s advice indicates that you should think more in a business all-or-nothing way for most Board service. When you commit to serving on a Board, you are responsible for the final decisions of that Board. If you fundamentally disagree with a Board action, your best option is to resign.

What I find most fascinating about Governor McDonnell’s letter is that if you extend its logic to disputes such as those occurring in the U.S. Congress over the budget, it is a refreshing reminder that leaders in both political parties need to be bold and courageous. A Senator or Representative needs to consider the views of his or her constituents and political party, but in the end needs to act according to his or her own conscience and bear the consequences of that decision.

Is Governor McDonnell’s letter the first firm expression for politics in general to change or will this type of decisive action result in even greater polarity of opinions? How do you see this situation resolving? Please share in the comments.