Help for not for profit and charity trustees

The deadly triangle

The tricky relationship which can exist between the chair, CEO and trustees

Everyone knows of the Bermuda Triangle but few know of the deadly triangle.  The former is almost certainly a myth: the latter isn’t.  It is my name for a frequent problem which crops up in small charities and it refers to the tension between the chair, chief executive and possibly the board itself.  It is perhaps inevitable that the sort of people who become leaders in some form or other exhibit various characteristics which makes tension between them more or less inevitable. 

The tensions arise for several reasons:

  • Differing views about the fundamental direction the charity is pursuing.  One might be cautious whereas the other is more ambitious.  One wants to go in direction A whereas the other in direction B.  There are many different causes or reasons for this divergence.
  • Uncertainty, or a lack of clarity, in the mission and purpose of the charity.  It means neither is working to a defined strategy.  When a problem emerges, there is no foundation against which it can be matched.
  • Who manages what?  This is essentially about boundaries.  The CEO will see his or her role as manager of the organisation. It is they who take the day to day decisions.  The Chair is supposedly about the longer term strategy and ideally should leave the management to the CEO.  Ideally.  But where does strategy end and management begin?  It is like a Venn diagram with the overlap section in the middle being quite large.
  • Plain ordinary personality clashes.  Whereas in many work environments, people can manage personality differences by working round them in several ways, the chair and CEO are effectively thrown together and a workaround is therefore difficult to manage.
  • Lack of role clarity. This to an extent echoes point 2 above but it is about a lack of understanding about what the two people’s roles are in any clear sense.  Each will have a belief of what it is but unless there is clarity, conflict is likely.
  • A breakdown in trust.  This might be an outcome of some of the above points but it can be a feeling – particularly by the chair – that they are not being told the truth, facts are being glossed over or that the truth is varnished in some way.
  • A feeling of not being supported – this time experienced by the CEO – who feels that the difficult decisions being taken by them are unreasonably criticised by the board or the chair. 

A certain degree of tension is both inevitable and can be of benefit.  There should be challenge and decisions should be discussed openly and perhaps vigorously.  The problem is if the tensions become intense or personal leading to frustration or even stand-offs. 

I call this the ‘deadly triangle’ because so often, the tension between the two is hidden from the third part of the triangle, the other trustees.  They turn up to meetings unaware of the simmering tension between the chair and CEO.  When something gives, or when one or other resigns, it can come as a complete shock.  There then begins the process of finding a new chair or appointing a new CEO.  Both can be difficult, time consuming and sometimes expensive.  It is also disruptive.  So avoiding this is something the trustees should be concerned about. 

In the next post, I want to discuss possible solutions which can at least, reduce the incidence and remove the surprise element.

Peter Curbishley


Author of How to be a Successful Trustee: ISBN 978-1-913012-63-2 (Amazon); 978-1-913012-61-8 paperback

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