03/19/2013 10:05 am ET Updated May 19, 2013

Trustees Are Not Your Friends

Anyone seeking to lead a college or university -- or any organization -- needs to work closely with the board. However, close as the relationship between president and board member needs to be, presidents should remember board members are not, and should not be, your friends. And yet, to be completely honest, I put this principle aside on occasion, despite always remembering the relationships I developed were subservient to a board member's responsibility to the college.

Over the years, I enjoyed my contact with trustees, and I also encouraged my staff to have contact with board members -- as long as, beforehand, they always let me know they were doing so. As one might expect, this regular contact often led to a blurring of roles. At no time did I forget, though, a trustee's allegiance was to the college, not to my staff or me.

On several occasions, I had to remind staff members that, while they should always be cordial to and cooperative with board members, they needed to remember, because of their fiduciary responsibilities, board members could not really be their friends. I, too, had to be aware of the potential for conflicts of interest that close relationships with board members presented.

During my first presidency, my board chair was someone whom I very much liked; he also became my younger son's godfather. Despite our incredibly strong relationship, I never forgot, should the occasion ever arise, my board chair/son's godfather had the obligation to choose the college over me. Fortunately, the occasion never did arise, and our relationship remained strong long after I left the presidency.

If board members are not your friends, though, they are your best source of expertise. I regularly was questioned by a board chair I once had as to why I kept turning to trustees for advice. My response was simple: How could I ever duplicate the financial, legal or real estate expertise my board members had?

Board members are also an important prod to force you to rethink positions. I battled with trustees about what my priorities were on an ongoing basis. I never convinced them, were I to focus on a single issue as many encouraged me to do, I would fall behind on other key efforts. So I kept going on five or six problems. I always remembered, though, the main point behind their urging was that we had to be focused.

Similarly, the board and I had different views at times over strategic plans. I had five strategic plans over the years, but I was far less concerned about the plans than the process. As Dwight Eisenhower said, and as I stated more than once at board meetings, "plans are nothing, planning is everything." I don't think a formal document is important; in fact, it can become a straight-jacket for an institution. However, I also believe fervently it is essential to have a process that focuses energies into a clear, concise effort and provides benchmarks for measuring success.

At board meetings, I would always encourage questions from trustees. Often they would ask me not to answer but to think about their question and get back to them at the next board meeting. I always answered, if I could not respond immediately to any question they asked, I should not be in the position because I should be familiar with every aspect of the college. Of course, the far more politic response would have been to answer the question posed at the next meeting.

I knew my approach to trustees, almost all of whom I liked and respected, would not enhance friendships. Then again, I was not too concerned about the matter, since trustees should not be your friends -- at least not while you're president.