Photo Credit: Aaron Burden

Governance is Not Leadership

Govern (v) – (1) conduct the policy, actions, and affairs of (a state, organization, or people) with authority; (2) control, influence, or regulate (a person, action, or course of events); (3) serve to decide (a legal case).

Manage (v) – (1) be in charge of (a business, organization, or undertaking); run; (2) succeed in surviving or in achieving something despite difficult circumstances; cope;

Lead (v) – (1) show (someone or something) the way to a destination by going in front of or beside them; (3) be in charge or command of (a) organize and direct, (b) be the principal player of, (c) set in motion, (d) start.

Let me propose that the many recommendations for how government ought to change are functions of perception (call it “culture,” if you will). But, since all actual change comes from within, the only perception that counts is the self-perception of those comprising government itself. Of course, government self-perception is not monolithic any more than “government” is actually a unitary notion. Irrespective, these self-perceptions are embodied in the distinction among the words identified above: lead, manage, govern. The contrast and tension between them is not to be sloughed off casually. It is important.

The distinction between the words—particularly between govern on the one hand and manage/lead on the other—is subtle. While both/all are about being in charge, making decisions, and embodying authority over some group or project, they come at it from vastly different places. I see the key distinction captured in “control… and regulate” for govern as opposed to “be in charge of…” for manage, and “set in motion… start” for lead.

Assuming you have not the time or playfulness to let the difference reveal itself, let me help. To control and regulate is about safely containing some process or activity. It implies action (underway) that could slip into chaos without firm restraint. A governor on a car or motorcycle engine will prevent a new driver with inadequate skills from accelerating too much, too fast and getting into trouble. Conversely, to be in charge of merely describes a social relationship or a structural feature. To set in motion… start assumes incoherence—or at least stasis. It is clearly about creating movement, through action (and guidance), without necessarily having an understanding where the process may end up. We assume both leaders and governors may—or may not—be in charge.

Governance assumes the end is at hand and is to be maintained. Leadership assumes the end is (far) away and requires movement to achieve. Governance restricts out of fear or at least an abundance of caution. Leadership expands with confidence that the unknown can be tamed.

Big deal. Semantics. So what?

Government is about… well… governing. So it’s not without reason for government employees from top to bottom to litter their language with “governance” in all grammatical forms except article. Whether that is a cause or effect, it is obvious governance reverence permeates thinking and discussion. How ideas and actions will be governed seems more concerning than the thoughts and activities themselves. That clearly reveals the predominant government employee mindset to be about regulating which is, by definition, about restricting.

The leap backward from regulating to initiating is not small.1 The transit demands a different skillset and, more importantly, a different mindset. It is a shift from protection to creation, defense to offense, restriction to expansion. Moreover, it is a shift of not a single mind but of the mind of the organization—that ephemeral, collective understanding. All of which is to say that irrespective of what others might recommend and how many change and transformation initiatives are launched inside government, there is a structural tendency toward one particular end of the word spectrum. That first has to be overcome. It’s probably not as easy as changing usage. But you never know.


1   To ameliorate the wound on innovators’ and leaders’ esteem, the direction relates to a lifecycle chart: initiate has to precede regulate. Ironically, it works that way alphabetically too.

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