Sample Article: Preventing Governance Scurvy


Jannice Moore

Most of the approaches we have seen to tackle governance failures relate to structure, composition, and regulation.  While these approaches may indeed treat the symptoms, they appear to have missed the diagnosis of the underlying root cause.  I suggest that the diagnosis for many governing boards today is “governance scurvy” – a deficiency in one or both of the governance “vitamins” of sincere motivation, and the ability to clearly conceptualize the purpose and method of governance.  Fortunately, an effective remedy already exists.

We now know scurvy is caused by a deficiency in Vitamin C.  In 1601 an English sea captain named James Lancaster conducted an experiment.  At that time, over half the men on a ship would die of scurvy on a long voyage. Lancaster had a fleet of four ships.  On one ship, each man received a tablespoon of lemon juice daily.  The men on this ship remained healthy.  On the other three ships, 110 out of 278 died by the midpoint of the voyage.  Did this great idea change the world of shipping and save thousands of sailors’ lives?  Not for nearly 200 years!  It took another 150 years before another officer, James Lind, replicated the experiment, and another 48 years after that before the British Navy began providing regular dietary supplements.

In the 1970’s, two brilliant thinkers independently developed complementary concepts that have the potential to change the future of governance.  Robert Greenleaf addressed the issue of the motivation of those who sit in positions of power on governing boards.  John Carver provided a conceptually complete model of governance, that, when adopted, allows boards to operate in a way that fulfills their accountability to those for whom they hold their organization or company in trust.  Yet, over 40 years later, many organizations are still struggling with how to fix what has gone wrong with governance, and in many cases, paying little heed to these readily available solutions.  Is modern governance, like 17 th century sailors, doomed to wait 200 years before taking advantage of these improvements? In this article I will address the first governance vitamin – servant-leadership. In Part 2, we will look at the second vitamin, conceptual clarity about the purpose of governance.

The Motivation Vitamin: Servant-Leadership

Greenleaf points out the motivation for being on a board of directors ought to be grounded in the desire to serve: “The greatest leader . . . is seen as a servant first because that is what he is deep down inside.  Leadership is bestowed on the person who is, by nature, a true servant.”1   Servant-leader boards see themselves as stewards.  Stewards are accountable for the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to their care. Boards have a stewardship responsibility to those on whose behalf they govern.

Board members should seriously ponder their motivation.  Are you on a board because you wish to wield personal power? Because the position is lucrative? (While this is unlikely to apply to most not-for-profit organizations, it may be a motivating factor for corporate board members.) Because it will look good on your résumé?  Or are you there because you want to help make the world a better place, whether that is through the benefits your not-for-profit organization provides or the increase of shareholder value for your company?  The New York Times has said that “Servant leadership deals with the reality of power in everyday life – its legitimacy, the ethical restraints upon it and the beneficial results that can be attained through the appropriate use of power.”2

Greenleaf3 makes a very powerful statement about the potential of boards to create good in the world:   “ . . . [trusteeship] is an important leadership opportunity. . . . no one step will more quickly raise the quality of the total society than a radical reconstruction of trustee bodies so that they are predominantly manned by able dedicated servant-leaders.”

Change isn’t Easy

He also acknowledges that when boards of directors are concerned enough to make a change, it will not necessarily be easy, and may even be opposed by management, but it will be worth it: “If directors want a more socially responsible company . . . they should start the process by becoming more responsible directors.  This will require some adjustment from administrators who are accustomed to nominal (and, therefore, less responsible) directors.  Directors should accept that when they move to their proper role they create a problem, and that they should deal with it as a problem.  The heightened quality of the company that will result will be to everybody’s benefit, including the administrators who will be disturbed by the adjustment they must make.”4 (Greenleaf, 1991, p. 4).

Boards Need to Lead

Greenleaf suggests boards of directors of companies should take a leading role in social matters, not only to follow the spirit of existing legal requirements, but to keep ahead of them.  They should be aware of all new laws or regulations governing social performance, and develop policy to expect voluntary compliance. Further, they should devise a system for assessing the attitudes toward, and opinions about, social performance of the company by owners, be aware of trends and developments in other businesses and institutions, and start a regular flow of information to the directors. This advice is particularly apt in the current social context.

He also notes “the interpretation of these data which the directors need for their policy decisions is different from what administrators need for their operating decisions.  Therefore, the directors should begin to build their own independent source of advice to help them interpret the new data.”5

Finally, he makes a case it must be clear who is in charge.  Boards need to have foresight, the ability to see changing social conditions far enough in advance that institutions can adapt the business to the conditions before events ultimately force their hands.  “Managers are not apt to develop those qualities [foresight].  These are not the qualities that bring a manager through a succession of steps to the top of an institution.  These are qualities that are best developed . . . in people who are intensely interested in the institution, who basically control it, but who stand outside its day-to-day operation and have a perspective on it that active managers are very unlikely to have. . . . we’re suffering because this role has not been generally recognized or accepted by . . .chief executives of institutions of all kinds.  Managers and executives . . . evolve a strategy to manage their trustees rather than the other way round” (emphasis added). 6 It rather sounds as if he were still around watching current governance practices!

Greenleaf7 asked: “Who is the enemy?  Who is holding back more rapid movement to the better society that is reasonable and possible with available resources? . . . . The real enemy is fuzzy thinking on the part of good, intelligent, vital people, and their failure to lead, and to follow servants as leaders. . .”

Will governing boards continue with their fuzzy thinking, ignoring solutions that have already been discovered?   Or will they exercise true servant-leadership, one of the “governance vitamins” that has great promise to cure the “scurvy” presently afflicting many boards? 


1 Robert Greenleaf, “Life’s Choices and Markers,” in Reflections on Leadership, edited by Larry C. Spears. (New York:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995), 20.

2Quoted in Larry C. Spears and Michele Lawrence, eds, Focus on Leadership. (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002), 4.

3 Robert Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader.  (Indianapolis:  The Robert K. Greenleaf Center, 1991), 31. [Originally published in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf.]

4 Robert Greenleaf, Advices to Servants.  (Indianapolis:  The Robert K. Greenleaf Center, 1991), 4. [Originally published in 1975 by Robert K. Greenleaf.]

5 Robert K Greenleaf, The Institution as Servant.  (Indianapolis:  Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership, 1972),4.

6 Robert Greenleaf, “A Conversation with Robert K. Greenleaf” in On Becoming a Servant Leader, edited by Don M. Frick and Larry C. Spears.  (San Francisco:  Jossey-Bass, 1996), 350.

7Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader, 35.

Contact Us