How to be the right kind of dictator

It sometimes comes as a shock to newly elected leaders that running good meetings requires being a dictator. It is essential for the chair of a meeting to enforce the rules that the group has decided upon for fair discussion.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon Bonaparte

If your board has adopted an agenda that allows 20 minutes for a given topic, and 19 minutes have gone by, the chair has the duty of calling this to everyone’s attention and asking what the group wants to do about it. If your council allows everyone to speak once before anyone may speak a second time, the chair must make sure that extroverts and strongly-opinionated folks don’t dominate the floor. If a member starts bad-mouthing another member and attacking his motives, the chair must interrupt and remind everyone that personal attacks and discussions of motives are never allowed.

At the same time, as far as the content of the discussion and decision-making goes, you must be—not a dictator, but the servant of the group. Under Robert’s Rules, in a large meeting the chair will not take part in debate or vote at all. This rule is in place because Robert recognized that the leader of a group has disproportionate influence over its decisions.

In a small board, the chair is authorized to participate in debate, but we recommend strongly that the chair be neutral or restrained. One excellent approach is for the chair to wait and speak after the members have spoken. This allows her to sum up the opinions that have been expressed, and also to preserve a more impartial stance.

These requirements pertain to meetings themselves, and are separate from the other duties of the leader of an organization. Of course a president of a nonprofit or the mayor of a city will often be required to express an opinion, to attempt to influence the thinking of others, or to encourage movement in a particular direction. While the actual meeting of a governing body is taking place, however, the wise chair will serve as a benevolent dictator as far as procedure, and as a modest servant when it comes to debating and voting.

Never miss an article!
Sign up today and get our blog articles right in your inbox.

Ann Macfarlane

Ann G. Macfarlane is a Professional Registered Parliamentarian. She offers an interactive and user-friendly way to master the key points for effective, efficient and fair meetings. Her background as a diplomat and Russian translator enables her to connect with elected officials and nonprofit board directors and give them the tools they need for success. She is the author of Mastering Council Meetings: A guidebook for elected officials and local governments.