A meditation on what it means to be good

28 April 2023

Good governance is an act of selfless empathy.

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world

Imagine by John Lennon

Of course, we don’t live in an imaginary world, and we live among people who, for whatever reason, are incapable of being good. Most of us want to be good – most of us want to share all the world – but life is complicated and messy.

The Good Governance Institute works with people who want to be good. The people who join boards – particularly those in the public or third sectors – generally do so because they share GGI’s vision of creating a better, fairer world. Many have personal stories behind their decision to go into public service – stories of loved ones being let down by failing systems or falling victim to unscrupulous opportunists.

These are good, empathetic people – the sort of people who would agree with George Bernard Shaw’s famous declaration of love for public service: “My life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.”

His use of the word privilege is interesting. It seems to me that the meaning of that word has been degraded. Instead of GBS’s privilege of public service, it now carries slightly more selfish overtones. Now it seems to have more to do with having the power and resources to avoid society’s problems. We have somehow normalised the idea that privilege doesn’t come with responsibility – it’s more of an escape route into a deluded reality separate to that of our fellow man.

It's important for us and for our colleagues to be reminded that we don't do governance, we do good. More governance isn’t good governance. Good governance makes it easy for people to do the right thing and very difficult for people to do the wrong thing.

As GGI’s CEO Andrew Corbett-Nolan wrote: “Good governance adds value. It is lean, transparent and ethical, focused on tackling operational challenges in ways that complement the big-picture vision. It always seeks the best outcomes for stakeholders and is never content with merely staying out of trouble. Good governance is about delivering meaningful and measurable outcomes.”

Checking privilege

As a blue-eyed South African growing up during the years of Apartheid, I have had much to reflect on about privilege and what it means to be good.

In his Meditations, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius reflected on the nature of the universe, the transience of life, and the importance of reason and virtue. He concluded that everything is interconnected, and that people should strive to contribute to the common good. 

These notions of interconnection and service to others sit at the heart of good governance, which in turn is rooted in the idea of integrated reporting, developed by the King Committee on Corporate Governance chaired by Professor Judge Mervyn King in post-Apartheid South Africa at the behest of the late President Nelson Mandela.

The newly elected president was looking for a way to instil confidence in South Africa as a country worth investing in while repairing some of the damage that had been done by a western capitalist system with just one purpose: to generate shareholder profit. 

 The King Committee’s new approach of integrated reporting aimed to create a balance sheet that reported not only on financial profit and loss, but also on the value created by an organisation and the impact it has on its community and the environment they share. 

By definition, not everyone enjoys privilege. And that means wherever it exists, there is also a sickness of inequality, want and power struggle. Occasionally those struggles turn into an avalanche of change. For a system to function properly, sometimes what doesn’t work needs to be discarded while maintaining the parts of the system that do work for everyone.

Scarcity is real

Integrated reporting gave organisations a way to take responsibility for their impact on the environment and the value they create for people in their community, to measure improvement over time and to provide an evidence base for the improvements underway.   

There are many good things to say about capitalism but creating demand in a time of scarcity for things that are not needed is the definition of evil. Power without responsibility is dry, grey, toxic. Only when we take responsibility for the impact that we have on society do we add love, fun, softness, and all the colours and textures that make life good and worth living. 

Being good makes us happy

We’ve all heard the saying: “hurt people hurt people.” It is through helping others, contributing to society and a selfless courage to make the world a better, fairer place that we can begin to add colour, life and texture to our own lives, creating a sort of inner garden or heaven of goodness and good memories, free from rage or resentment. From this place we can serve others and share in our joy. We create sadness and anger when we go against our better nature.

No one knows what it's like
To be the bad man
To be the sad man
Behind blue eyes

Behind Blue Eyes by The Who

Being good requires work

The research professor and author Brené Brown said: “Vulnerability is our most accurate way to measure courage”. She has spent over two decades studying topics such as vulnerability, shame, empathy, and resilience. Her work has been ground-breaking in the field of psychology, and she has given numerous popular TED talks and written best-selling books such as Daring Greatly and The Gifts of Imperfection. Brown’s research has shown that vulnerability is not a weakness, but rather a strength that leads to greater connection and personal growth.

By numbing, distracting or escaping from life’s more difficult challenges, we disrespect ourselves and create a shallowness. Looking after our own health and wellbeing, having self-respect and healing by feeling is a responsibility we each need to take for ourselves and will lead us to have a deeper well from which to draw.

Just imagine the scarcity of good that exists in a soul capable of profiting from the misery of others. I imagine it is something of an empty desert compared to the colour and richness of a soul that shares memories with people positively impacted by their existence.

It’s not selfish to focus on healing oneself. Self-improvement is an act of self-respect and personal responsibility that creates a better us for others. We cannot pour from an empty cup. In 2015 we said Good governance because it improves people’s lives. In 2023, we will encourage people to first take responsibility for improving their own.

That’s why the theme for this year’s Festival of Governance is Good governance because scarcity is real. The principles of good governance are more important than ever. We must consider how we can effectively address issues of scarcity in our communities. With resources increasingly limited – the environment, finances, workforce, time, health and wellbeing – organisations must adopt innovative and sustainable practices to ensure long-term success.

And again, we will provide opportunities for old friends to meet and new ones to be made while we collaborate on the creation of a better, fairer world.

What good looks like

GGI works with organisations whose vision is driven by making communities better and fairer. We do this by helping people on boards, primarily in the public sector, to be more effective in their roles and to deliver Professor King’s four meaningful outcomes of governance: ethical culture, good performance, effective control, and legitimacy.   

GGI offers a range of tools and methodologies to help deliver these outcomes, including our maturity matrices, skills training, board assurance prompts, and our lean governance offering, which includes Making Meetings Matter – a sure-fire way to save valuable executive time. GGI consultants review, diagnose, design, catalyse, support and embed tools and programmes with boards and executive teams to expertly adapt various schools of thought to the real world.

Another cornerstone of the service we offer to clients are our board and organisational development programmes, which have been used to support the boards of more than 750 organisations in the 14 years since GGI was founded. Lately we’ve been thinking more and more about how to adapt these programmes for systems, and we’re excited to announce a new programme designed to address the very specific needs of system leaders – shaped by new ideas but rooted in the tried and tested practicalities of making things better for our communities.  

For free advice, contact advice@good-governance.org.uk.

Festival 2023

During this, our ninth Festival of Governance we will be re-presenting each of the eight themes explored over past festivals. Up to now, the purpose of our festivals was to empower members of boards of NHS, public and third sector organisations to consider their tremendous influence on the world that we live in. It is now time to use the festival of governance to explore the theme of responsibility.

Right now, what a wonderful world it is
No time is better than now to live
Right now I’ve got a whole of love to give

Miracles by Viceroy and Molly Moore

Listen to the public good podcast as we explore eight societal themes depicted in past Festivals:

Meet the author: Jaco Marais

Director of Corporate Communications

Find out more

Prepared by GGI Development and Research LLP for the Good Governance Institute.

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