Our worst selves


©Can Stock Photo/fouroaks

When I served on the board of the American Translators Association, a fellow board member drove me crazy. His blithe assumption of superiority and his ego were insufferable. Of course, it is a truism of psychology that a strong emotional reaction like that is linked to unresolved inner issues. When I looked at the matter carefully, I saw that I couldn’t stand this person’s taking the limelight because I wanted it myself.

When you are elected to a board of directors, facing your own worst self is one of the biggest challenges. Service on a board assumes and requires that all members be treated as equals. We have to value each person’s individual contribution even when, from a personal perspective, that contribution seems rather paltry. Being willing to take the time to reflect and consider one’s inner reactions will make a big difference in how effective we are as board members.

The constant struggle to think well of ourselves

It’s not so easy to do this because of what T.S. Eliot called “the constant struggle to think well of ourselves.” In general, people who seek to serve on a board have a commitment to public service that goes beyond self. People don’t volunteer for this job if their primary interest is self-aggrandizement. Our self-image typically reflects our spirit of service.

Yet as we mature and progress in life, and get to know ourselves and others better, we come to recognize that sometimes we are motivated not by our best impulses, but by our worst.

Emotions are essential to human functioning. Oliver Sacks has written about the dreary lives of people who, because of brain damage, don’t have emotional reactions to guide them in making choices. Emotion is a critical impetus to action, to commitment, to caring. It’s your emotional commitment to your community that has led you to serve on your board. And yet, emotions untrammeled will wreck any board. This is where, paradoxically enough, Robert’s Rules of Order can help.

Like being in a marriage arranged by the citizens

As one witty person said, “Serving on a local government board is like being in a marriage arranged by the citizens.” You don’t have a choice in your colleagues. (Nonprofit boards are a little different, but the same dilemma can arise.) Robert’s Rules of Order provide a structure that allows board members, with all their different backgrounds, perspectives, personality types and qualities, to work together for a common good.

How does this work? Well, Robert’s Rules of Order establishes that everyone has equal rights, privileges and obligations. So during discussion, no one may speak a second time until everyone who wishes to do so has spoken once. This simple guideline has enormous implications for meetings. It prevents conversation from going “down the rabbit hole,” and ensures that two members can’t “hijack” the meeting.

Robert’s Rules insists that the subject of the discussion must be the issue at hand, not personalities. Members can’t sling insults or insinuations at each other, and must maintain courtesy and respect in what they say. This filters extra emotion and irrelevant issues and keeps everybody on topic.

Robert’s Rules says emphatically that the chair runs the meeting in the service of the group. The chair is not allowed to push their own agenda, to dominate the discussion, or to ride roughshod over the rights of others. The impulse to dominate is deeply grounded in our psychic selves, for reasons of evolutionary survival. Our inner aggression is a necessary life force that must be controlled. Robert’s Rules makes that happen.

Common sense, but not so common

These rules seem like common sense, but these days they are not so common. Putting them into play gives your board a structure that will dampen down the heat of anger and high emotion, and encourage the light of reason and respect. If things are going swimmingly on your board, you may feel that you don’t need that structure. But when dissent and frustration erupt, if you have the structure in place, you will be prepared to absorb the pain and move ahead anyway.

Sharpen your skills

You can sharpen your skills with our online course, “Take Control of Your Meetings Using Robert’s Rules.” Two hours of your time, watching 16 short little videos, will enable you to run truly productive and effective board meetings—or to respond to a chair who does not treat everyone fairly.

We also offer webinars and articles on these topics. Let me know how you find our materials, and what problems they help you solve. I’m always glad to hear from you!

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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.


  1. Pat Haley on May 15, 2020 at 10:24 am

    “When I looked at the matter carefully, I saw that I couldn’t stand this person’s taking the limelight because I wanted it myself.” It takes a good deal of humility to have this kind of self analysis and I appreciate your example. Humility is one of the most attractive virtues, but often one of the most difficult to practice. Recognizing others as having equal value is the essence of humility and your article was a great reminder of what we should all strive for in every relationship.

    • Ann Macfarlane on May 15, 2020 at 10:50 am

      Pat, your comments are so true! Unfortunately the prevailing culture values confidence and assurance in a leader over humility. Thanks very much for this thought.

  2. Cindy Hughes on May 15, 2020 at 10:47 am

    Great article Ann! So appreciate all of your hard work 🙂

    • Ann Macfarlane on May 15, 2020 at 10:48 am

      Thanks so much Cindy! It’s great to hear from you.

  3. Kate Schubert on May 15, 2020 at 4:36 pm

    Great article, Ann. I am not ready to absolve your former colleague, since I have always found you to be both hardworking AND modest. Not to mention cheerful and upbeat, even when things are tough.

    • Ann Macfarlane on May 15, 2020 at 4:39 pm

      Your comment made me laugh, Kate, and is very kind. Thank you, thank you! Hope you are doing all right in these tough times.

  4. Cindy Adkins on May 20, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    You are a treasure, Ann. Thank you for this good reminder! Hope you are doing as well as can be expected during these uncertain times.

    • Ann Macfarlane on May 20, 2020 at 12:06 pm

      Cindy, thank you so much for this kind comment! Yes, I am doing well, crazy as the times are. Hope you are also the same. Very best!

  5. David Rumsey on May 20, 2020 at 12:24 pm

    Great post! As I say, “Leadership is about ego management. And the toughest ego to manage is your own!”. The rules are there not to impose anything, but to remove the emotional component from the debate. Keep up the great posts!

    • Ann Macfarlane on May 20, 2020 at 2:09 pm

      Love your comment David! Thank you so much!

  6. Elaine Williams on May 20, 2020 at 7:18 pm

    Well Ann you’ve done it again! Hit the nail right on the head. Except when you dont know others have to take the responsibility be cause the show must go on.

    I invite you to Zoom into my Toastmasters meeting as a guest. I will present a workshop on what you’ve taught…with flavor.

    • Ann Macfarlane on May 20, 2020 at 8:00 pm

      Elaine, I’m glad the post resonates with you. I have to regret for your Toastmasters meeting, but I appreciate the invitation very much and wish you a successful workshop! Best, Ann

      • Kathy Hougardy on May 26, 2020 at 10:33 am

        We all know that strong emotional reactions are often linked to our own issues, but it’s so powerful when, 1) the concept is stated well and succinctly 2) it’s applied to a situation that we haven’t thought of before, such as a board meeting — or council meeting for me! I know that I get my buttons pushed from time to time, but maybe I should dig even deeper to help figure out how to avoid it from happening. Thanks, Ann!

        • Ann Macfarlane on May 26, 2020 at 10:36 am

          Kathy, so glad to know that this resonated with you! Looking deeper isn’t easy but it sure makes a difference. Thanks so much for your comment!