Presidents Have to Act Differently

I had seen it happen to almost all people elected to the highest office in their organization. They toned down their rhetoric and became much less forceful champions for pet issues. And I had chided them for that, because it disappointed me that they would dilute their support for issues I considered important. I chided them, that is, until I was in the same position. And then I changed my attitude.

I have served as president of two national professional societies, one international professional group, and several regional and local organizations, so I have had the experience to know the requirements of the job. Before being elected president, I had served on the boards of these different societies as well as several others. While on a board, it was easy to support, sometimes very vigorously, partisan positions I believed in. It was necessary, I thought, to try to persuade the rest of the board to move in the directions that I felt were best for the organization.

Board meetings are often ho-hum affairs, dealing with interminable mundane issues. But sometimes they become turbulent, especially when two entirely different solutions for the same problem are being strongly advocated. Sometimes, the discussions turn into debates. Sometimes, the few uncommitted board members must choose between the two loudest voices in the room. Sometimes, rationality prevails—but not always.

I always thought that these contentious meetings were the most fun; at least, they weren’t boring. There was also an air of competition, which raised my adrenaline level. I did not like to lose.

Being associated with strong positions— especially if some are adopted and, more importantly, if one is willing to accept the decision of the board when these positions are found to be unacceptable— can lead to nomination for higher office, and it happened that way for me. After all, vision is good for any organization, and having plans for its improvement is not always particularly common among leaders in an organization.

Anyway, I was elected. But a funny thing happens when one is elected the highest-ranking officer of a group: the realization hits that the office is intended to serve and advocate for the entire membership, not just the ones with views similar to the president’s. The highest calling for the president is to make everyone feel comfortable with his or her membership and participation in the organization. Progress must be made without rocking the boat so much that some members feel alienated. The president represents everyone who is a member.

So the partisanship softens, and the loud voice quiets. Now, it is up to the president to give a voice to everyone who wants to be heard and try to bring order to those raucous board meetings. Robert’s Rules of Order state that the chair of a meeting is such a powerful position that he or she cannot take obvious and conspicuous sides on an issue before the group. The chair cannot set forth a position in any debate or discussion without first relinquishing control of the meeting. The chair, however, does have the ability to direct the conversation where he or she thinks it should go and to allow debate to continue or stop debate and call for a vote. That is why a working knowledge of Robert’s Rules is important.

All good presidents know these things, either through practical learning or thorough observation of others who have served before them. I know several cases of presidents who have not quite gotten the message and do not know when to tone down the rhetoric and begin to act presidential. These are examples that do not deserve to be followed.

As a postscript to this message, let me say that I have felt that the worst office to hold is that of past president. Some say it is easy to be a past president because the days of stress and responsibility are over. The problem is that the ability to influence the directions of the organization is over as well. If the past president still has an agenda for the organization, then there is little he or she can do to further that agenda. Before an individual is elected president, others pay attention to the positions he or she takes. While president, the individual can often move the organization in directions he or she thinks it should go. But, as past president, one’s days of influence are largely over, and, on top of that, the perks that come with the office of president (like special hotel suites and interviews representing the organization) are no longer available. So, then, maybe it’s time to run for the board again.