There are many attributes which combine to make a terrific Chair. Like all great leaders, it is easy to recognise effective Chairs when you see them, but pinning down what they have in common and the influence they exert can be more difficult.
Most leading scholars of strategic leadership and corporate governance agree on seven attributes or traits all great and influential Chairs of Board have in common. These include:
First, integrity. The person leading the Board ought to be seen as having the highest personal standards with regard to honesty, reliability and commitment to the role. There should be no doubt that they can be trusted at all times. They must always do the right thing, and have the right conversations, more so if this is difficult. What the Chairs say must be in line with what they do, and also what they think and feel.
Two, ability to influence others, but without domineering. The Chair is responsible for ensuring all Board members are contributing their own unique skills for the good of the organisation. A good Chair recognises that each and every Board member is there for a reason, and has knowledge, expertise and experience to offer. The Chair must present the options available to the Board, seek the input of others without unduly imposing their perspectives, and clearly state the rationale for any recommendations.
Three, clear vision. According to Rosalynn Carter, ‘A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.’ The Chair needs to be clear about his or her vision for the Board and the organisation, and to ensure that the Board and top management share in this. To be influential, a Chair has to lead, not to be led…but also to be open to the influence of others.
Four, emotional intelligence. This is arguably the most important attribute of any leader–the ability to read people and build positive relationships with them, including those with whom they may disagree. Relationships among Board members and other strategic stakeholders can be strained. A Chair must appreciate that conflict happens from time to time, and in fact is healthy if dealt with properly.
An emotionally intelligent Chair ought to identify when an element of conflict leads to more effective challenge and more robust decision making, and when it might be detrimental. The emotionally intelligent Chair hears not just what is said, but can also read what is not being said. The task of the Chair is to resolve conflicts and build consensus, and without emotional intelligence this is unlikely to be achieved.
Five, intellect and experience. A certain level of intelligence and experience is required to lead Board work, and effectively undertake the Chair’s role, including managing the expectations of all key stakeholders. An important element of this is the ability to grasp the essence of any issue, and to be able to articulate it clearly and simply.
Six, decisiveness. Great Chairs know what to prioritise, when to take action, and what judgements to make in difficult circumstances. They use the best information to make decisions which balance the needs of all stakeholder groups.
Seven, character, including courage. According to Dale Carnegie: ‘Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are.’ There are times when the Chair needs to make courageous decisions in the best interests of a specific stakeholder, which may not always be popular.
Here’s some helpful backdrop with two quotes by Confucius: ‘Choose a job you love and you will never work a day in your life.’ And ‘Act with kindness but do not expect gratitude.’
Wanjuki Muchemi starts us off, positing that Shaka Kariuki possesses amazing traits of a great Chair of a Board. He states that Shaka is ‘a great listener, accommodates diverse opinions on matters, is quite approachable, impartial and objective.’
True leaders practice the three R’s: respect for self, respect for others and responsibility for all their actions. Enter Rita Kavashe. Rita goes further to identify what Boards in Kenya need, and embarked on building the Boards she chairs, driving diversity in skill sets and inclusion, which are strong tenets of modern Boards underpinned by robust corporate governance practices. While walking the talk, she has carried fellow women with her, holding their hands to achieve full potential. These is just a brief glimpse into the potential of this amiable executive from the Taita Hills.
John Quincy Adams opines, ‘If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.’ Here we see John Ngumi and Alec Davis. There are three essentials to leadership: humility, clarity and courage, according to Fuchan Yuan.
A fitting description of Nik Nesbitt and Rita Okuthe. Leadership is an opportunity to serve. It is not a trumpet call to self-importance. This quote from Donald Walters aptly describes Kris Senanu, Michael Joseph and Isaac Awuondo.
Integrity, ability to influence others, personal strength, clear vision and passion for the work, emotional intelligence (in abundance), intellect and experience, and decisiveness are textbook attributes of a leader. Mike Eldon espouses all these.
Each of the Chairs featured here possesses attributes that are praiseworthy, and there are many others who might also have been included: we are not short of leadership talent in Kenya.
Let’s wait and see the 2022 Business Monthly East Africa Top 25 Most Influential Women in the C-Suite in the next issue.