The Prime Directive
by Ed Noot, SCSBC Executive Director ◊
I have thoroughly enjoyed traveling the universe. Of course, being a career Christian educator, my opportunities for space travel are extremely limited but TV, movies and novels have opened new horizons for my inquiring mind.
I’ve always been a bit of a “Trekkie”, as fans of Star Trek are known. The hit 1960’s TV show, created by Gene Rodenberry, followed the adventures of the starship Enterprise as it traveled the universe. Who can forget Captain James T. Kirk, Dr. Spock, Bones, Scotty and a host of other memorable characters? The original series ran for only three seasons but it was followed by a host of spin off TV series, movies, novels, comic books, toys and conventions. Star Trek became a huge franchise.
What does Star Trek have to do with the governance of Christian schools? Possibly a lot, as the series had a penchant for framing big questions within the story line – questions of justice, mercy and fairness. There is one particularly compelling aspect of governance, however, that I think Star Trek can teach us, namely the notion of the Prime Directive.
The Star Trek Prime Directive prohibited Starfleet personnel from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations. As they traveled the universe interacting with different life forms, this directive informed, shaped and limited their interactions.
Do board members of Christian schools understand what directive informs, shapes and limits their governance role? How do they acquire this understanding? What would be the Prime Directive to guide their journey as a board member?
I believe the Board Member Prime Directive is, “Commit to acting in the best interest of the school’s mission and vision on behalf of the society and its members.” As the latest article published by STRIVE (www.strive.com) puts it, “board members are servant-leaders committed to the best interests of the organization.”1
This comment may sound like a motherhood statement, but if board members understand and apply this directive consistently, it will have profound results and will help boards avoid some critical pitfalls.
Board members are often called trustees. This is a legal term that indicates the trustee is commissioned to hold something “in trust.” Most of our schools are structured in such a way that the school membership elects/appoints individuals to hold the school mission, vision and operations in trust. Being a trustee is a legal designation and it is a serious obligation.
The National Association of Independent Schools (www.nais.org) reminds us that trustees “actively support and promote the school’s mission, vision, strategic goals and policy positions, taking care to separate the interests of the school from the specific needs of a particular child or constituency.”2 When school board members function within the Prime Directive, they will keep the big picture in mind and not get unduly distracted by the details or rabbit trails that inevitably present themselves. Governing within the framework of the Prime Directive leads to boards that:
- know and embrace the school mission and vision
- uphold the integrity of the board, fellow board members and board procedures
- uphold and support the lead administrator(s) and other staff
- ensure that all communications (compliments, questions and complaints) are handled judiciously and in accordance with agreed upon procedures
- engage in vigorous debate around the board table
- support board decisions by speaking with one voice
- find authentic ways to communicate board decisions and seek community engagement
Keeping the Prime Directive requires conviction and fortitude. In many episodes of Star Trek, the Prime Directive was in serious danger of being violated. Board members need to know where the lines are, and to take care not to cross them. They also need the courage to speak the truth in love, holding one another mutually accountable.
In our Christian schools, board members will be faced with society members who want to lobby them to advocate for their particular take on a certain issue. They will be confronted with society members who want to ignore proper channels for complaints and concerns, taking them directly to the top. They will be approached by other board members who want to have a meeting outside of the meeting.
All of these practices prohibit board members from fulfilling their role as trustees or keepers who seek to govern by acting in the best interest of the school’s mission and vision on behalf of the society and its members.
Of course, board members come with their own experience, expertise and perspective. In fact, they may have been selected to the board for that reason. Once they take on their governance role on the board, however, the Prime Directive dictates that they use experience, expertise and perspective only the best interest of the school’s mission and vision on behalf of the society and its members.
Understanding the key governance mandate can help our schools flourish by allowing boards to focus on providing bold and visionary leadership.
2 NAIS, Independent School Trustees – Principles of Good Practice, 2003
Image credit: NASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/Tim Pyle