Governance – Not a Secondary Question

I am going to make a bold declaration:  everything depends on governance – on getting it right and honouring the systems or protocols of good governance.   Everything. 

Yes, I know that in Institutional Intelligence I sought to make the case that there are seven elements of an effective organization:   mission clarity, good governance, financial sustainability, a vibrant institutional culture, strategic partnerships, appropriate facilities and, of course, “the right people on the bus.”   And yet it has become increasingly clear to me that while each of these matters and each of these could, potentially, be a source of institutional drag that thus needs to be tended or addressed, when all is said and done it all comes back to governance.

I am defining governance as the capacity to leverage power and influence so that the mission of the organization happens in a financially sustainable manner.   Governance is about making wise decisions that are implemented; it is about doing the right thing with this goal in mind:  that the mission happens.   Thus when speaking about mission and governance, it would seem that governance is a means to an end – the mission.  And that therefore everything comes down to mission.   The mission of the organization is the compass and constant reference point.   And it is.   However, what also needs to be mentioned is that we cannot even confirm or clarify our mission if we do not have the system of governance that can lead to clarity about mission.   Who and how is the mission determined and affirmed?   Who says that we are “on mission”?   And that brings us back to governance.

Thus a healthy and working institution – an effective organization – will have an appropriate approach to governance: an approach that works.   Dysfunctional governance; dysfunctional institution.   Big problems with the organization?  They come and they go – challenges of all kinds.  But they can only be addressed if there is an approach to governance that leverages power and influence such that these problems and challenges can actually be addressed.

In this regard, three things.   First, nothing works right if there is an undue concentration of power – where someone, for example, wields power without accountability or transparency   And yet, the organization does not work if no one has the power to do what needs to be done.   Effective organizations find the sweet spot on this one:   power to do what needs to be done – but not an autocracy.   Someone needs to be able to make the call, and do what needs to be done.  But always with appropriate consultation, accountability and transparency.

Second, everyone who works in the organization should know how governance works in this place – where and how decisions are made and how they are implemented.   If you care about the organization, these kinds of questions will matter to you.  And, you will know your place or role within the organization when it comes to helping the organization succeed.  You will know the difference between being a board member, or being a senior staff person; you will know if you are the president or the senior pastor of a church and what this means for what only you can do for the organization.   You will know where you exercise vote; and where you exercise voice.  And you will honour the system or approach to governance.  Thus, a pastor will honour the work of the church board.   A president of a country will honour the work of the legislative body – the Congress, in the case of the US.  Each will respect and affirm the role of the other in good governance.   And both the board and congress and any such legislative body will support the work of the executive.  

And third, we will “tend” these systems of governance.   We will have bylaws in place that affirm how we function as an organization.  If there are unwritten protocols and understandings, we will at the very least recognize these – perhaps based on precedent or tradition, as is the case in much of British parliamentary procedure.   And we need to speak to them and come back to these protocols often so that we are aware, especially through a challenging or difficult season in the organization, how we do things in this organization.  And it needs to be mentioned with enough regularity that we all know – it is a shared understanding; we talk about governance even as we are doing good governance.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.