Good Governance for School Boards

Trustee Professional Development Program

Module 15 — What Makes a Great Board Chair?

Last updated in 2015

(module update currently in progress)

What Makes a Great Board Chair?
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  • The skills and knowledge that contribute to being an effective chair
  • The respective roles of chair, director and trustees
  • Key aspects of leadership


This module is intended to be a resource for chairs, vice-chairs and trustees considering undertaking the role of Chair.

Becoming a Great Board Chair

Every human has four endowments – self-awareness, conscience, independent will and creative imagination. These give us the ultimate freedom… the power to choose, to respond, to change.


The Education Act requires boards of trustees to elect a chair from among its members for a one-year term. The chair of the elected school board is an individual trustee chosen by the board of trustees as a leader who represents them. As an individual trustee, the chair has no greater rights or powers than any other member of the board. However, the members of the board, as a whole, in electing one of their peers to be the chair of the board, confer on her or him a leadership role. The chair is responsible for fulfilling specific duties as outlined in the Education Act as well as setting the tone for a collaborative working environment in which all trustees have a voice.

The board’s efficiency, effectiveness and creativity, as well as its ability to successfully resolve conflicts and solve problems, are often directly related to the chair’s leadership skills and style. The chair’s communication and interpersonal skills can also significantly contribute to high levels of trustee and staff morale.

There was a time when many board chairs fulfilled their roles in one of two ways. The first was the board chair who ‘ran’ the board and made decisions, telling trustees what was going to happen. The other was a figure head chair who was elected because it was his or her ‘turn’, but who may have lacked the ability to direct the work of trustees in a way that led to meaningful outcomes. Neither of these approaches serves the needs of today’s boards.

Through relationships with trustees, the director of education and the community. An effective chair approaches the role with a belief that the chair is first among equals rather than omnipotent ruler. They understand that the chair fulfills the same role as other trustees, but has the additional responsibility for managing the board’s work. The selection of chair is important and should never be taken lightly.

Great board chairs demonstrate the ability to be strategic thinkers, expert facilitators, and clear communicators. They step into their one-year term with the ability to develop and nurture positive working relationships with the director of education and their peers around the board table. They assume a shared responsibility with the director, for achieving success across the system. The partnership of board chair and director serves as a portal through which communication is passed to trustees and to the system.


Keep the big picture in view

It is said that boards should operate at the 30,000 foot level, overseeing the operations of the system without becoming involved in day-to-day operations. Board chairs who are effective help trustees stay focussed on the ‘big picture’. When issues that relate to the actual running of the school system are raised, the chair reminds trustees of the direction they have already provided staff through policy and the strategic plan, and the importance of leaving the solution at that level. They challenge trustees to remember their role as strategic leaders of the system.

Facilitate dialogue

Boards conduct their work through discussion at the board table. While one of the jobs of the chair is to preside over meetings, a characteristic of a great chair is the ability to facilitate the process in a way that encourages meaningful dialogue that explores all sides of issues. When the chair presides, he or she ensures that meetings are conducted in accordance with legislation, bylaws and policies of the board, and that meetings run on time. When the chair facilitates, he or she creates a setting where different viewpoints are raised, are listened to and are questioned with the goal of promoting understanding. Chairs who are great facilitators lead the board through comments like “perhaps we might consider…” and “What viewpoints haven’t we considered or voiced?” it is the chair’s responsibility to ensure that trustees hold discussions that result in well-thought-out decisions, and that they do so in a climate of trust.

Demonstrate strong interpersonal skills

The job of a board chair is not an easy one. The chair is an equal among his or her peers, yet may need to address disruptive behaviours and challenge trustees when their individual actions conflict with the wish of the whole. Chairs need a high level of self-awareness, recognizing when they have become so engaged in an issue that they have lost clarity and need to step back. They must be great listeners, not just for the words that are being spoken, but also for the worries that may be voiced at a level below the words. They need to demonstrate empathy, recognizing the good will of everyone they work with, even when the behaviours they encounter are abrasive or unruly on the surface. Trustees become known as being great board chairs when they are able to relate to people in a way that addresses important issues while building relationships. They communicate the message that says, “I don’t have to agree with you to ensure that your voice is heard.”

Are effective communicators

Unless the board assigns someone else the responsibility, the chair is the spokesperson for the board and represents the board to the community and stakeholders. This means that the person who assumes the position of chair must be an articulate and clear communicator and be able to represent the system well. It also means that sometimes the chair will have to respond to challenges to the board’s decisions. It will always require the chair to communicate in a way that demonstrates faith in the system.

Today, great chairs are great leaders and the characteristics of what makes them great far surpass the limiting role that may have been defined for them in the past. “However the job is interpreted it is clear that the title “chair” involves so much beyond “chairing” meetings. Organizations interested in achieving the elusive goal of governance excellence must pay close attention to the attributes, mode of appointment and the role of this critical player.”[1]


In defining the roles and responsibilities of the chair of the board it is essential to consider the roles and responsibilities of the board as an entity and of the elected trustees as individuals. In addition, since the chair and the board must work very closely and harmoniously with the director of education, the roles and responsibilities of the director must be clearly understood. A strong and effective board chair understands the distinct roles of board, director and staff and, in leading the board, can assist board members in maintaining the distinction among these roles.

Role of the Elected Board

In broad terms, it is the role of the elected board to:

  • govern in a manner that is responsive to its entire community;
  • act in the interests of all learners in the district;
  • advocate actively for students, their learning and their well-being in the board’s work with the community, the municipality and the province;
  • promote confidence in publicly funded education through its communications about the goals and achievements of the board.

More specifically, the elected board, as representatives of the people, are decision makers, and they must integrate information from all the forces which impact on the board, process that information, evaluate it and make a decision compatible with the board’s beliefs, values and knowledge. The board of trustees must keep in mind the interests of all students within the school board district rather than the interests of a few students in a particular school or geographical area.

The elected board is responsible for setting the overall direction for the school system. This is done through a multi-year strategic planning process that is reviewed annually. Through the strategic plan, the vision, mission, values and beliefs are revisited and strategic priorities or goals are determined. The board of trustees also provides direction through its policy processes. These include planning, directing the development of policy and evaluating the effectiveness of policy. The board also approves its annual budget ensuring that it reflects the approved directions of the elected board in terms of how resources are allocated to schools and programs.

The board of trustees, through the director of education, holds the system accountable for achieving the results established through its planning process. It does this by determining responsibilities for the results at various levels throughout the organization, and by establishing a monitoring and evaluation system whereby reports are made to the board on a regular basis. This accountability process positions the elected board to report to the public and the province about system and school performance.

Role of the Individual Trustee

A school trustee is a member of a team – the board of trustees. Only the board of trustees has the authority to make decisions or to take action; an individual trustee in and of him or herself does not have this authority. The Education Act clarifies the role of the trustee as follows:

A member of a board shall:

  • carry out his or her responsibilities in a manner that assists the board in fulfilling its duties under the Education Act
  • attend and participate in meetings of the board, including meetings of board committees of which he or she is a member
  • consult with parents, students and supporters of the board on the board’s multi-year plan
  • bring concerns of parents, students and supporters of the board to the attention of the board
  • uphold the implementation of any board resolution after it is passed by the board
  • entrust the day to day management of the board to its staff through the board’s director of education
  • maintain focus on student achievement and well-being
  • comply with the board’s code of conduct.

(The Education Act, s.218.1)

Governance is at its most effective when it embraces the community perspectives brought by the individual trustees. Indeed proactive community participation is a crucial part of good governance by the board. The key is achieving balance between the governance authority of the board of trustees as a whole, and the individual representative role each trustee also fulfills.

While members of the board of trustees act as representatives of their constituency, their primary job is to participate in policy-making and strategic planning that is in the interests of all of the school board’s students and is grounded in promoting student achievement and well-being. Successful trustees manage to balance the governance role with the representative role, participating in decision-making that benefits the whole board while representing the interests of their constituents.

The constituency role is a key and personal interface between trustees and the public they serve. The personal nature of the communications at this level is part of the daily life of a trustee and can be both rewarding and demanding. When constituents call they are usually seeking solutions to a particular issue related to a student or a school. Trustees need to be aware of the steps they can take to clarify or help solve the issue. With the support of the elected board, the director identifies processes that trustees can follow to bring forward the concerns of the individual constituent. Resolution or clarification is often achieved through referral to the appropriate member of the director’s team of senior staff. All matters will need to be considered within the context of the board’s policies and the procedures that flow from them. When a trustee feels the issue is of such a nature that it needs to be brought before the board of trustees at a board meeting, it is important to be aware that the matter then belongs to the whole board and all board members have a collective responsibility to consider it. Once a decision is made, individual members are required to uphold and respect the board’s decision. Failure to do so may result in the trustee being found to have breached the Board’s Code of Conduct (See Module 17).

It is important to note that regulatory changes made in 2009 (O.Reg.190/09) clarify that First Nation trustees who are appointed to the board to represent the interests of the First Nation students are considered elected members of the board, with all the rights and responsibilities of the position. A First Nation trustee can be elected as chair or vice-chair.

Role of the Chair of the Board

The chair is chosen by the board of trustees as someone they are proud to have as a leader who represents them. The term of office of the board chair is for one year. The chair normally acts as the main spokesperson for the board and must deal with the community and the media, as well as with other trustees and board administration. Amendments to the Education Act made in 2009, clarified in law these aspects of the role of chair.

The chair of the board shall:

  • preside over meetings of the board;
  • conduct the meetings in accordance with the board’s procedures and practices for the conduct of board meetings;
  • establish agendas for board meetings, in consultation with the board’s director of education or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education;
  • ensure that members of the board have the information needed for informed discussion of the agenda items;
  • act as spokesperson to the public on behalf of the board, unless otherwise determined by the board;
  • convey the decisions of the board to the board’s director of education or the supervisory officer acting as the board’s director of education;
  • provide leadership to the board in maintaining the board’s focus on the multi-year plan;
  • provide leadership to the board in maintaining the board’s focus on the board’s mission and vision;
  • assume such other responsibilities as may be specified by the board.

(The Education Act, s.218.4)

The chair or the chair’s designate must be physically present in the meeting room for every meeting or committee of the whole board. He or she cannot participate through electronic means. The Education Act does not indicate the number of terms that the same person may continue as chair, although individual boards may have rules, procedures or policies regarding the number of terms a trustee may serve as chair.

Although the chair assumes a leadership role, he or she must adhere to the board’s directions and may not act unilaterally. The chair has a legislated responsibility to set the agenda for meetings in consultation with the director of education. This is accomplished most effectively with input from other trustees. The chair works closely with the director to ensure that the wishes of the board of trustees are understood, and works with the elected board to present and clarify any concerns of the administration.

The Education Act holds boards accountable for student achievement and well-being and the effective stewardship of resources. (s 169.1) It is, therefore, an integral part of the role of board chair to help keep the board focused on student success and well-being, on the board’s mission and vision, on its key priorities and on its fiduciary responsibilities. Fiduciary duty requires each trustee to act in the best interests of the board as a whole. On occasion, the chair may be called upon to use facilitation skills, conflict resolution and management strategies to settle disputes in the interest of keeping the board moving forward in a unified manner.

Role of Vice-Chair

According to the Education Act, trustees may elect a vice-chair to act in the chair’s absence. As a member of the board, the vice-chair has the same roles and responsibilities as other trustees and assumes those of the chair in his or her absence.

Serving in the role of vice-chair offers a valuable opportunity to learn and be mentored about the role and responsibilities of the board chair. Serving as chair of board committees also offers experiences, insights and skill-building that contribute to readiness to take on the role of board chair.

Role of the Director of Education

In broad terms, it is the role of the director of education to display excellence as an educational leader, to be politically sophisticated, to be aware of and active in legislative developments, to have an extensive knowledge of relevant provincial laws, to be an exemplary educator, and to personify effective communication.

Under the Education Act the director is the “chief education officer” and “chief executive officer” and is required to “develop and maintain an effective organization and programs required to implement board policies” (s. 283).

The board of trustees is responsible for the recruitment, selection and performance evaluation of the director of education. The board of trustees should establish a policy that defines the division of responsibility between the board as the governing body that sets policy and broad directions and the director of education as chief education officer/chief executive officer who leads, executes and monitors activities on behalf of the board of trustees. The director of education and the board of trustees work in partnership to develop and attain the vision, mission, strategic goals and priorities of the school board. The decisions of the elected board on policy and budget, together with the development of the board’s strategic plan, are the basis for the director’s work and accountability.

The elected board’s most influential governance relationship is the relationship they have with the director of education. In effect the director of education is the sole employee who reports directly to the elected board. A trusting, respectful and cooperative professional relationship between the board of trustees and the director of education and a mutual understanding of their distinct roles lead to effective policy implementation. When elected boards have questions or issues about policy implementation, they address those questions or issues first through the director of education.

Like all relationships, the working relationship between the chair and the director needs to be based on common values, open communication, mutual trust and respect and commitment to what is best for students, families and staff. Solid productive relationships develop over time. Each leader must respect the role and responsibilities of the other and commit to the development of a solid working partnership.


While each individual trustee is a leader and contributes to the smooth functioning of the board, leadership is a key feature of the chair position. The characteristics of effective leadership that a chair would model include empathy, positive outlook, determination and resolve, objectivity, a talent for team-building and motivation, a capacity to build trust, communication and presentation skills, and resourcefulness.

“Leadership is not a solo performance. It is not a style. Indeed ethical leadership is very much a reflection of how we respect and nurture relationships for the common good. How do we move from “I” to “We”? How do we add value so that the successful work of the elected board as a whole far exceeds what can be accomplished by any single member of the board acting alone?”

Strong leadership is crucial to effective board performance. Certain specific characteristics of excellent leadership have been identified through studies of effective boards and companies. Some of these characteristics include:

Character and Integrity
A leader’s character plays a vital role in determining the effectiveness of his or her leadership. Trustworthiness and honesty are the two important aspects of a leader’s character. Integrity and adherence to strong moral principles are also important features of strong leadership.

Everyone who runs for office as a school trustee does so for a reason beyond themselves. As a leader, their challenge is to articulate the vision, describe how it will bring improvements and, through sincere dialogue, inspire their colleagues, school board staff and the community to share the vision. Vision helps a leader develop goals, chart a direction and inspire others.

Positive Outlook, Determination and Resolve
Presenting a positive attitude even in the worst of situations is a characteristic of a good leader. The attitude and resolve of a leader are important determinants in successfully overcoming challenges. An effective school board chair is, like all elected trustees, passionate about student success and well-being and public education. Effective leaders believe that their efforts will have a positive effect.

Trust and Respect
A good leader does not demand or command respect, he or she earns it. Respect must be reciprocal and mutual. A strong leader sets the tone for a working climate where respect is built on a foundation of the kind of social discourse that takes place across the school community, genuinely listening and valuing the opinions of others. Respect and trust are nurtured through honest and open dialogue.

Relational trust among team members fosters a set of organizational conditions that encourage individuals to initiate and sustain the kinds of activities that lead to successful results in meeting the goals of the board and improving student outcomes. Trust is sustained in relationships where respect, personal regard, competence, and personal integrity are valued and practiced.

Objectivity is an important aspect of leadership. Despite personal opinions, there may be situations in which a leader may need to set his or her own beliefs aside in the interest of supporting the decisions of the board and presenting a unified front to the media and the public.

Managing resources effectively, thinking outside the box and finding solutions to unforeseen problems are all important functions of a leader. Creative thinkers believe in their own abilities to meet challenges effectively and efficiently. Creative thinking is the ability to develop original, diverse and elaborate ideas that open doors and create opportunities. In times of budgetary restraint or short timelines, for example, resourceful leaders will find innovative ways to continue to do an excellent job with less money, fewer staff or less time.

Great Board Chairs:
  • work well with individual trustees, the board as a group and the director of education.
  • achieve openness and transparency at the board table.
  • keep the agenda focussed on student improvement.
  • work continuously to improve school board performance.
  • run a flexible process.
  • have an open leadership style.
  • have a broad range of experiences and expertise.
  • prepare for the role.
  • are personally accountable for school board performance.
  • balance regulation and strategy.

Adapted from: What makes a great Board Chair, Governance, December 2004, Issue No. 134.


Board chairs, whether new in the role or with years of experience, strive to strengthen their leadership capacity and further develop the skill sets that allow them to be effective in their service to the school district, staff, students and their families.

There are many ways that board chairs can develop these skills. Attending conferences can deepen their knowledge of the leading education issues affecting their school boards. Participating in workshops related to governance and leadership can enhance their skills in running board meetings, managing public relations, engaging communities and resolving conflict. Networking with other chairs and undertaking formal or informal mentorships will provide practical insights into the day to day challenges of their role. Taking advantage of membership in provincial and national school board organizations opens access to a broad range of resources specifically developed to support the governance role.

This module offers an overview of key components of the role of board chair and is also intended to support trustees aspiring to the role of board chair. Specific resources on running effective board meetings and on media relations as well as self-assessment tools are available online at


  1. “Not a Rocking Chair! How board chairs can provide strategic leadership to public purpose organizations,” Tim Plumptre, Institute on Governance, 2007