If you have ever read the book Three Cups of Tea, you would surely see author Greg Mortenson as the perfect example of an Evolutionary. Like millions of others, I read the book when it was released a few years ago and hailed it as an example of just the sort of miracles that can happen when Evolutionary change agents harness their fullest potential to transform communities and the world.
If you admired Mr. Mortenson’s work the way that I did, then you too are probably shocked and disappointed to hear the developments this month regarding a settlement based on the legal finding of “serious internal problems” in his charity’s management. While the charity, The Central Asia Institute (CAI) has been approved to continue operations in what has been described as a “worthwhile mission”, lessons abound for leaders charged with governance in any organization.
In our line of work we have the chance to engage with a variety of Boards of Directors, and if there is one thing we have learned, the role of the Board is paramount! Everything about the failure of Mortenson and the CAI could have been avoided if only the right Board were in place…
If you have not read the book – here’s a quick summary: In 1993, mountaineer Greg Mortenson attempted to climb the mountain K2 as a way of honoring the memory of his deceased sister, Christa. After getting lost during his descent, alone, he became weak and exhausted. He then came across a small village built on a shelf jutting out from a canyon where he was greeted and taken in by the chief elder, Haji Ali of Korphe. To repay the remote community for their hospitality, Mortenson recounted in the book that he promised to build a school for the village. After difficulties in raising capital, Mortenson was introduced to Jean Hoerni, a Silicon Valley pioneer who donated the money that Mortenson needed for his school. In the last months of his life, Hoerni co-founded the Central Asia Institute, endowing the CAI to build schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan.
According to the book, Mortenson faced many daunting challenges in his quest to raise funds for the building of more than 55 schools in Taliban territory. Some of these challenges included death threats from Islamic mullahs, long periods of separation from his family, and being kidnapped by Taliban sympathizers. Mortenson advocates in his books and during his speaking engagements that extremism in the region can be deterred through collaborative efforts to alleviate poverty and improve access to education, especially for girls. Formerly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, schooling focused on boys. Because educated boys tend to move to the cities to find jobs, they seldom return. By contrast, educated girls tend to remain in the community and pass their enhanced knowledge to the next generation, thus, Mortenson suggests, educating girls has more long-term power to create lasting change and benefits for the community.
Pretty good stuff, right? The Dalai Lama says basically the same thing, but hey, here was a guy who was making it happen. How cool is that? Well, just how cool it really was is now the BIG QUESTION.
“60 Minutes” has accused Mortenson of mismanaging hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of funds, donated to help build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan after a year-long probe uncovered serious internal problems in the charity’s management. Among the accusations was the claim that Mortenson had been using charity funds for personal vacations and other purchases.
While the Attorney General concedes that the work of the CAI charity is both impressive and effective, such failures cannot be ignored.
The CAI Communication Director Karin Ronnow explained that the Attorney General found no evidence of actual criminal activity, but financial missteps did occur. She admitted that Mortenson is not an expert in finance or management and was not accustomed to dealing with large sums of money. While no wrong-doing was found to be intentional, mistakes were definitely made.
Under the settlement Mortenson will have to pay more than a million dollars in restitution within three years. He has also resigned as Executive Director, but will stay on with the charity in a role that does not include financial oversight. Two Board members who supported him must also step down within a year, and a new board of no less than seven members will be appointed for near the future. The Attorney General’s office says it will monitor the charity for three years to ensure future compliance.
The Board of Directors: Lessons in Governance
A critical element of the case against Mortenson is that the charity’s Board of Directors “did not challenge him” when it came to using funds for personal expenses. The Board members were too close to Mr. Mortensen to operate at arm’s length and provide objective oversight. They believed in him and they believed in the mission, so they wanted to demonstrate their trust and support.
It happens all the time… A good-willed, dynamic Evolutionary sets out to change the world. Through a combination of determination, charm, and ingenuity, transformational change is indeed achieved. And then it takes on a life of its own, growing quickly – the magic must be scaled. It’s time for a Board of Directors, management of funds, oversight, evidence collection and documentation. What started as a small, but noble effort becomes an internationally funded movement. And the person who started it all, the Evolutionary, often lacks the necessary skill set and knowledge to manage an internationally accountable organization.
Enter the qualified Board of Directors. It is critical that the Board be made up of independent, competent individuals, not sycophants of the founding Evolutionary, as in the case of Greg Mortenson.
Non-profit Boards are designed to serve the public good, and that means challenging leadership when necessary and offering strategic guidance to the organization. There is no question that the CAI Board of Directors were strongly committed to the mission at hand, but what they could not do was offer the necessary competencies, governance and oversight required for such a high-profile organization.
When Evolutionaries Fail
In our book, Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership, we spend a chapter discussing the myriad of ways that Evolutionaries can fail. Evolutionaries attract followers for a variety of reasons, and those reasons are very important. Evolutionaries fail when they misunderstand or ignore the reasons for which people are following. For example, people may follow an Evolutionary out of awe, sympathy or loyalty rather than commitment to a cause that is bigger than the individuals involved. Evolutionaries can easily fall into the trap of being treated like a “hero” or being “invincible” – it is at its core a fundamentally human response. It is a response driven by vision, commitment to excellence, the drive to leave a legacy and compassion rather than arrogance, self-pity or self-obsession. The point is that we are defined as much by the people that follow us as by the vision we pursue.
When your governing body is made up of people who are also enamored by the Evolutionary leader, you inevitably will find well-intended organizations that are brought down by issues related to performance, oversight, and accountability.
Just as we want followers to follow the vision, and not the Evolutionary who created it, Evolutionaries fail when they lead from a place of ego rather than purpose. Just like anyone else, Evolutionaries fail when they drink too much of their own Kool-Aid – when they start to believe it is about them instead of about the work, the organization, the community. When this happens, you are no longer, by definition, an Evolutionary.
Evolutionaries also fail because they underestimate the power of a really good idea and a really good vision. When you look at communities that are achieving truly great things, you almost always wonder, “How did that start? How did that take hold?” Scale is a part of what an Evolutionary is all about – making a difference in the world, for the community, for the universe – not just triple bottom lines, but triple triple bottom lines – Evolutionaries fail because they don’t know how to play on a big enough stage.
To avoid failure, Evolutionaries should welcome the view of the pragmatist, the nay-sayer, the critical Board member, the engineer, to keep them grounded and realistic about the financial outlook, the accountabilities of the organization, and the capabilities of the talent they lead.
Those are the critical people that were missing on the CAI Board of Directors. And for that, a beautiful story is tarnished. Will this mean the end of all the good Evolutionary work Greg Mortenson began? Not likely. But, the moral is: this failure could have been easily avoided. The power of a diverse, independent and competent Board of Directors cannot be underestimated.