The Unspoken Secret to Good Governance

6th February 2023

International Advisor to Global Association Hubs Martin Sirk argues that people rather than processes have by far the greatest impact on outcomes, whichever governance model is used. Books, articles, case studies and panel discussions on this topic almost never examine the destructive potential of a single “bad governor” with influence over the association’s levers of power, even though this is one of the most important causes of governance crises and failures.

Governance is a complex and multifaceted issue: query Boardroom’s website and you’ll find 114 articles touching on the subject, even before this magazine edition’s appearance adds another dozen. ‘Good’ governance, ‘agile’ governance, ‘purpose’ governance, ‘virtual’ governance, ‘green’ governance. Governance structures, models, historical norms, performance metrics, rules and skills. You’ll find analyses on different models for defining authority, determining accountability, optimising decision-making. And helpful advice on how to run governance meetings, designing Board election processes, what kind of support structures are needed, risk management models, and much, much more. A powerful body of work exists on best practice across a wide range of structural, procedural and evaluative dimensions.

But there’s a lost piece in this jigsaw. A missing link that destroys the chain’s integrity. A loose cannon on the logically-constructed, well-organised deck of SS Good Governance: it is, quite simply, the “bad governor”!

Bad Napoleon

“He behaved like a little Napoleon”“They’ve poisoned the well”“Five years of progress undone”“Staff trust has been utterly destroyed” (all real quotes from conversations with – necessarily anonymous – association CEOs… except that the swear words have been removed!). I’ve heard stories of financial corruptibility and dodgy dealings, nakedly self-interested decision-making, plotting and scheming, ethical inadequacy, self-aggrandisement and even narcissistic sociopathy. Associations are not immune from the concept that power has the tendency to corrupt, nor from the reality that many of those who crave power are those who should ideally be kept furthest away from the matches and petrol!

Lower down the danger scale, but still existentially risky for associations, here’s a non-comprehensive list of stereotypes that I’m sure many readers will recognise:
*One Year Wonders – the President who insists on doing *everything* in their 12 months in office.
*Status Kings/Queens – “Never mind the recent collapse in recruitment, why wasn’t I given the Presidential Suite?”

*Sample of One-ers –Who use anecdotal member complaints to promote policy changes. 

*The Iconoclast – “I was elected to shake things up”!

*The Careerist –Views everything through the prism of whether it’s good for their future prospects.

*I Always Know Best – the star surgeon, company CEO, senior bureaucrat, emeritus scientist who comes from a world where no-one ever says “no”!

The big problem is that NO governance model or structure is immune to the damaging impact of even a single “bad governor” near the levers of power (the bad apple in a barrel process kicks in – their malign influence spreads like wildfire). Such people tend to be self-confident, extrovert, and excellent at persuading others to support their agenda. Sometimes their true nature isn’t even visible until they reach high office. But once they reach such positions of authority and power, they benefit from the natural deference that others give to the title, influencing the behaviour and thinking of both fellow Board members and ordinary members. Their character deficiencies and personal agendas can radically change group decision-making, by-pass checks and balances, create dangerous new norms and precedents, drive the CEO and staff to distraction, and most importantly, divert resources and attention from the association’s Mission. 

Challenging the behaviour of a “bad governor” or at the extreme, removing them from power, is an exceptionally difficult (and potentially career-damaging!) procedure, as evidenced by the rarity with which any sanctions are imposed. And the higher up the authority ladder they’ve climbed, the more difficult it is to effectively apply any rules or sanctions that might exist within the association’s governance model. The most common “solution” is for everyone to quietly wait until they step down from their position of authority, and to hope that the institution itself hasn’t been permanently damaged.

Plea to associations

Given this seemingly intractable problem, what then is the unspoken secret to good governance? “Good governors” (of course!).

Whilst this may sound flippant, it isn’t. It’s a plea for associations to place far more emphasis on and to devote far more resources towards the careful evaluation, encouragement, selection, training and development of volunteer leaders who have the most valuable character traits – empathetic and altruistic to start with – of good governors, than on tweaking the structures, rules, processes and bureaucratic details of their governance models. If you can get enough of these right people in place, they can always find a way to move the association forward, no matter how bad the deficiencies in the model!

This is particularly important for international associations with aspirations to good global governance: to elevate individuals with an understanding of and empathy for cultures and working environments beyond their own, who will not be too deferential to titles to speak up honestly, who can express the philosophies, perspectives and concerns of members in their region of the world, and at the same time maintain a commitment to the global mission of the association. In many regions of the world, such people are too humble to put themselves forward, leaving the field open to others with less worthy motives (bad governor types exist in every culture!). No association should leave itself in such a vulnerable position, but few take the proactive steps needed to identify and nurture a cohort of the right kind of future leader within every region and sector of their community.

Will this proposed shift of focus from processes and structures to people entirely eliminate the risk of bad governors? No, of course not! But it will significantly reduce the risk, not only because more of the right people will be encouraged into leadership positions, but because of greater institutional awareness of the damage that can be caused, which can and should lead to stronger safeguards.

Martin Sirk is International Advisor to Global Association Hubs, a partnership between Brussels, Dubai, Singapore and Washington DC, which is committed to promoting the societal value of international associations, and to stimulating the discussion of important issues through events and articles such as this, which appears as part of a collaborative partnership with Boardroom.

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