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Governance in High Stakes – Leading your Organisation in Challenging Times



What do we mean by ‘high stakes’?

The impact on Human Dynamics and Board Performance

Heroic Modes in Times of Crisis

Lowering the Stakes


Short Video Classes


Activities with interactive content, as well as a range of interviews with leading Board Members and Experts

6 hrs


With the option to make online notes on every class, download a Certificate of Completion & provide Learner Feedback

Course content available for....



This on-demand learning course – Governance in High Stakes – brings Board Development expert, Margaret Williamson, straight to your device. The course provides learners with around 6 hours Continuous Professional Development and features a mix of short video classes, as well as a range of activities and conversations with leading Board Members and Experts from across Scotland which bring the issues alive.

Throughout, learners are encouraged to explore how best they can participate on a Board or Committee when the stakes are high and rising, and still perform their governance role effectively.


The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted and challenged organisations, lives, and livelihoods across the globe. For public service providers, be they in the public or third sectors, the challenges and complexities brought about by a pandemic have added to the pressures that already existed – to meet a rising demand for public services with limited budgets and resources; to make efficiencies and savings, yet maintain and improve service quality, reliability and safety.

How Boards and Executive Teams perform their governance and management roles during this period will often be dictated by how they manage ‘high stakes’ and how they behave in high pressure situations.

As the stakes start to rise, individuals begin to feel triggered and their normal pattern of behaviour changes – the language they use and the decisions they adopt are often distorted, as their view of how things ‘should be’ is challenged. At a Board and Management level, this can often lead to a breakdown in relationships and a lack of trust; poor decision making; and risks and opportunities being missed.

However, if Boards can manage ‘high stakes’ and individual Board and Executive Team members can recognise and change their own default high stakes behaviours, they can help avert a crisis in the dynamics of the board and lower the stakes for themselves and others. Leading to better governance and more effective team leadership and decision making.

Key Themes

  • What are ‘high stakes’ behaviours and what causes them
  • How to recognise ‘high stakes’ behaviours in ourselves and others, and in our board dynamics
  • What moral postures we adopt when we are confronted with someone whose world view is very different from ours
  • The downwards spiral of boards in crisis and how to reverse it
  • Our childhood heroes and their invisible role in our response to crisis
  • How to lower the stakes for ourselves and others and restore equilibrium

Includes conversations with...

  • Esther Roberton, leading Public Sector Board Member & Chair; Director of Scotland’s Futures Forum, the Scottish Parliament’s think-tank
  • Dr Kirsty Darwent, Chair, Scottish Fire & Rescue Service; Chair of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board; Chair of Relationships Scotland
  • Matt Henderson, a corporate restructuring and insolvency expert

Course rates for learners

1 Learner


3-5 learners

Small group
£ 80 Per person

6-300+ learners

Large group
£ 75-35 Per person

Detailed course agenda


Introduction to Governance in High Stakes

  • Why are Boards particularly vulnerable in high stakes situations?
  • Fight or flight responses to high stakes
  • Why is it that some boards work well and others are completely dysfunctional?
  • The importance of conversational capacity


What do we mean by ‘high stakes’?

  • What is a ‘High Stakes’ situation?
  • What causes the stakes to rise?
  • When the stakes rise our behaviours change


Activity – High Stakes and You



What makes for an Effective Board? – Conversation with Esther Roberton

  • Practical advice for better Board meetings – Board Size, Room layout etc.
  • The ‘Climate’ of the Board – Culture, Behaviours, Relationships and Mindsets
  • Under pressure – overcoming defensiveness, fear and lack of trust


The role of Board Member Behaviours in Effective Governance

  • Components of an Effective Board
  • 5 things that successful boards do
  • Kantor’s 4 Player Model – ‘Move, Follow, Oppose, Bystand’ Action Stances


Activity – Your Action Stances


Human Dynamics and Board Performance – Conversation with Esther Roberton

  • Governing virtually – the challenges of online Board & Committee meetings
  • Keeping Non-Executive Directors engaged
  • The value of going beyond ‘individual’ skillsets
  • Board Development – the importance of training Board & Committee members


Unproductive patterns of behaviour

  • Move-Oppose, Multiple Moves, Group Think
  • Covert Opposition
  • Common anxieties that raise the stakes


Activity – Sources of Anxiety in the Boardroom


Shadow Human Behaviours

  • Typical shadow behaviours
  • Why would we want to explore our shadow behaviours?
  • The impact of shadow behaviours
  • High stakes behaviours come from within ourselves


Activity – The Ladder of Inference


Maintaining Board Effectiveness when the stakes rise – Conversation with Dr Kirsty Darwent

  • Executive and Non-Executive reactions to highly pressurised situations
  • The key role of the Chair in developing trust and relationships
  • Embracing Diversity & Challenge
  • Key behavioural elements for Board Effectiveness under pressure



Reacting to DIfference – Understanding our Operating Systems

  • Tolerance for Difference
  • The unspoken rules that govern our interactions
  • The 3 Operating Systems – Open, Closed, Random


Activity – Your Preferred Operating System


The language we use in Boardroom Conversations

  • The language we use in conversation
  • The language of Affect
  • The language of Meaning
  • The language of Power


Activity – The way we use language


Diversity in the Boardroom

  • What do we mean by diversity?
  • Having a range of perspectives leads to improved decision making
  • Other sources of difference


Activity – Your Tolerance for Diversity


The role Boards can have in contributing to failure – Conversation with Matt Henderson

  • What is the most common reason for businesses to fail?
  • The importance of people and relationships
  • Boards under stress – the danger of reverting to type
  • The vital role of Non-Execs in a crisis situation
  • Don’t be too polite – avoid group think!
  • Guarding against unjustified optimism


Developing the right ‘culture’ on a Board – Conversation with Esther Roberton

  • Building trust and understanding with the public
  • Managing the expectations of Executive and Non-Executive members
  • Diversity of thought and skills



Exploring our Moral Postures

  • In ‘high stakes’ our tolerance for difference is challenged
  • Kantor’s Moral Postures
  • The Prosecutor
  • The Adjudicator
  • The Advocate


Activity – Exploring Your Moral Posture


Personal Reflection – Your Archetype of a Hero


The Role of the Hero in High Stakes situations

  • The Three Main Hero Types
  • The Fixer
  • The Survivor
  • The Protector
  • Heroic Modes of Leaders in a Crisis


Activity – Your Heroic Modes



Summary – Lowering the Stakes for yourself and others

  • How do you manage your own shadow behaviours?
  • How to lower the stakes
  • How to react when you feel triggered
  • Creating space and empathy – Understanding the behaviours of yourself and others

Introducing Our Trainer

Margaret Williamson

Director, Boardroom Development Limited; Lead for the 'Board Watch' project, observing Scotland's Integrated Joint Boards

Margaret Williamson is an organisation development consultant specialising in improving the performance of Boards and Executive Teams. She has been Director of Boardroom Development Limited, an independent strategy and organisation development consulting practice for the past 23 years and prior to that held senior positions in finance and consulting. A champion of boardroom diversity, she created the Boardroom Mentor Programme, the first competency-based programme for women non-executive directors in the UK. She has extensive experience as a non-executive director and audit chair in the public and social enterprise sectors.

In conversation with...

Esther Roberton

Experienced Public Sector Board Member and Director of Scotland's Futures Forum

Esther is committed to the social and economic development of Scotland and has spent most of her professional life in public service.

She is currently Chair of the Fife Cultural Trust/OnFife and member and director of Scotland’s Futures Forum, the Scottish Parliament’s think-tank.

Until June 2021 she served as Interim Chair of NHS Lothian. Previous roles include Senior Governor at the University of Aberdeen, Chair of NHS 24, non-executive director with Scottish Government and the Scottish Ambulance Service and Chair of NHS Fife and the Scottish Further Education Funding Council.

At the invitation of Scottish Ministers, she conducted a review of legal services regulation in Scotland and submitted her report Fit for the Future in 2018.

She also served as an independent member of the Press Complaints Commission, as Chair of SACRO, the community justice charity and the Edinburgh International Children’s Theatre Festival (now Imaginate).

Esther was actively involved in the campaign to secure Scotland’s Parliament as Coordinator of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, and as a member of the Consultative Steering Group that developed the standing orders for the Parliament.

She is a Fellow of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry.

Dr Kirsty Darwent

Chair, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service

Dr Kirsty Darwent is the Chair of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service having served on the Board since the Service’s inception.

She has a substantive governance experience and is the Chair of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board, Chair of Relationships Scotland and the former Vice-Chair of the Board of NHS Ayrshire and Arran.

Kirsty has combined public and third sector leadership and governance roles with a professional career as a Chartered Psychologist and Systemic Psychotherapist.

Following an undergraduate degree in Psychology she qualified as a Systemic Family Therapist at the Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience and undertook her supervision training at the Scottish Institute of Human Relations.

She has an inter-disciplinary PhD across psychology and health. She applies psychological, systemic and relational understandings to her leadership and governance roles and is committed to widening board diversity of thought and a collegiate culture that ensures that different perspectives contribute to board effectiveness.

Matt Henderson

corporate restructuring and insolvency expert

Recently retired, Matt’s career involved over 30 years as a corporate restructuring and insolvency expert – skilled in Restructuring, Dispute Resolution, Turnaround and Advisory services. In this course, Matt joins Margaret to offer his unique perspective on why organisations fail and the key mistakes Boards can make in contributing to that failure.