Peter Stanford: The scars of battle take time to heal

Like the people of Scotland post-referendum, trustee boards that have been split down the middle on a fundamental issue must move forward with leadership and magnanimity, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Scotland, post-referendum, has been promised a white paper on "devo max" before St Andrew's Day (30 November), and a draft Scotland bill by Burns Night (25 January). It's a tight timetable, but the assumption seems to be that these carefully timed initiatives will heal divisions north of the not-quite-a-border. But I wonder.

Politically, it might well be true. Psychologically, socially and emotionally, however, can the scars created by any entity becoming divided almost down the middle on the question of its future be patched up so easily?

The Scottish conundrum put me in mind of those occasions when I've sat on trustee boards that have been split down the middle on a fundamental issue, such as the future direction of the charity. Once settled – worst of all, by the chair's casting vote – was it business as usual afterwards, unity and common purpose re-established? Or was there paralysing suspicion, with the wound never really healed?

The cause is always more important than any one person's feelings

In the first major bust-up when I was chair of a trustee board, the bloodstains on the carpet took a very long time to fade – and only after a few dramatic departures from the top table. No chance of that in post-referendum politics, it seems: only Alex Salmond is stepping down, and he is vowing to fight on for his cause.

In our board discussions leading up to the eventual decision, so much was said that was scaremongering, stretching a point or plain wrong that the damage went deep. It had all become very personal.

This is inevitable: being a trustee is about an individual's commitment to a cause. You are useless if you are disengaged or float above the fray. But if I had my time again, I'd work much harder on reminding everyone of the golden rule of trustee boards – the cause is always more important than any one person's feelings.

So we got through it. Just. And it took leadership and magnanimity from both sides. Most of all, we had to achieve a balance between the determination to proceed on the path so painfully chosen and a degree of compromise that would bring the vanquished along.

Another lesson not necessarily learned at the time: try as far as possible to keep the chief executive out of the worst of the boardroom blood-letting. At times his presence was unavoidable, but too often it happened by default. The long-term result was that he felt uneasy about going forward, and eventually – with hindsight, inevitably – he opted for a new job where the slate was clean.

And the second occasion? One tangle of trustees is enough for any chair, I'm afraid. When I saw round two looming, with the chance to revisit the decisions of the recent past, I steered around it. Pragmatism or lack of courage? Perhaps both - although maybe that should have been the moment for me to stand down. With head but not heart engaged, a chair is not as effective as he or she ought to be.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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