A man named Henry was once asked to chair a meeting at his local church. A seasoned military officer and engineer, he was embarrassed when conflict erupted and he lost control of the meeting. “The best of men, having wills of their own, are liable to attempt to carry out their own views without paying sufficient respect to the rights of their opponents,” he later reflected.
Although this scenario could unfold at any modern-day board meeting, it happened more than a century ago. Henry Robert (1837–1923) was the chair, and his desire to improve his own leadership and facilitation capabilities resulted in Robert’s Rules of Order, which is still the most popular playbook on parliamentary procedure in the United States.
What Henry Robert discovered is this: Good meetings require good ground rules. Without a common language to conduct business and established procedures for monitoring behavior and making decisions, any deliberative body can struggle to be fair and productive.
At the Knott Foundation, we follow Robert’s Rules of Order in all our board and committee meetings. In its simplest form, that means every decision begins with a motion, which is then discussed and voted on. A motion can pass, fail, or be amended (sometimes more than once) to reflect new ideas.
Robert’s Rules Made Simple
The rules are robust—816 pages!—but I’ve discovered ways to introduce them to my board, or help folks brush up on them, so that everyone feels empowered to use this common language.
My favorite resource is Robert’s Rules Made Simple by Susan Leahy. It’s a great interactive learning tool and includes a video on the seven fundamental motions in Robert’s Rules, as well supplemental worksheets and reading materials. I’ve started offering periodic trainings to my trustees and trustee candidates, where we watch the video and discuss how to use each of the fundamental motions. Fortunately, Susan’s high energy and conversational style make a dry topic like parliamentary procedure rather entertaining!
Another resource is Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised In Brief. It’s a more digestible copy of all the rules you’ll ever need, except in the most exceptional circumstances. At under 200 pages and only $7.50, it’s a steal!
It must be noted, however, that although Robert’s Rules provides a comprehensive procedural map for a board or any deliberative body, it doesn’t substitute for a supportive culture or a committed group of people working with a shared sense of purpose.
In the end, I believe Henry Robert was an insightful leader who realized that no matter a group’s good intentions, there’s always an opportunity for unforeseen conflict or complication. Having a defined set of ground rules and a common language to govern meetings, moderate discussions, and make decisions can be helpful for any board.
Kelly Medinger is executive director of the Marion I. & Henry J. Knott Foundation, a Catholic family foundation in Baltimore, MD.