Yankee Doodle Day – Prof Andrew Corbett-Nolan

01 July 2022

The words ‘The 4th of July’ can’t be said without immediate association with the catchy song ‘Yankee Doodle Day’, which though popularised by Jimmy Cagney in the 1942 film ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ has its roots all the way back to the American Revolution.

The song has popped up at odd moments in history too. Dating back to 1755 we have this quaint version:

Brother Ephraim sold his Cow
And bought him a Commission;
And then he went to Canada
To fight for the Nation;

But when Ephraim he came home
He proved an arrant Coward,
He wouldn't fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devoured.

In 1917 the song was played loudly by Rasputin’s assassins to cover up the sound of his colourful and time-consuming murder, and Yankee Doodle is also an official printers’ tone for a kind of grey with a hex value of #4d5a6b. Very diverse invocations!

American independence is enshrined in the Constitution of the United States and its 27 amendments. These amount to a clear set of rules by the Founding Fathers to describe the running of a democracy. Of these 27 amendments, 11 were agreed in the 18th century, four in the 19th, 12 in the 20th and none so far this century. The famous second amendment protects the dubious right to keep and bear arms.

A clear, written constitution is still considered the ideal basis for organising a country and there is much talk of our own country benefiting from such a development.

Organisations all have a governing document too, usually laying out their purpose and describing how the leadership is appointed, decisions made, profits distributed, and ownership rights protected. Much of this is legally prescribed and since the 1990s various codes of governance have added further guidance beyond the law setting out how organisations and their boards should operate.

In May this year, NHS England published its new draft Code of Governance for NHS provider organisations, and GGI and others are spending a lot of time reviewing this to comment back before the code is finally issued.

GGI’s favourite code is ‘King IV’, the latest in a series of codes published by the King Commission in South Africa to guide organisations of all kinds. What is different about King IV is that it is principles- rather than rules-based, and makes the point of linking organisational structure and governing processes to meaningful outcomes - results. King IV’s 17 principles cover all aspects of a modern organisation’s governance, and the board is tasked with applying this as suitable to the context and needs of the organisation in a way that points to effectiveness and impact.

Hard-wired constitutions that are unbendable, or the application of highly specific rules, lead to poor governance and are difficult to undo. The rules become an act of faith. The rules were developed to reflect what seemed important at the moment they were created, and then time moves on. It is for this reason that American teenagers can buy combat rifles and 400 rounds of ammunition because in 18th century colonial America being able to muster a militia was important.

Organisations have a better governance DNA when they need to consider outcomes and impact, and how applying principles best achieves these. Codes of governance such as the new NHS Code are a help, but would be better if thought of through the lenses of usefulness (impact) and context (the application of principles).

Boards need to, in Mervyn King’s words, ‘apply intellectual honesty to the principles to animate their organisation’ and give it a ‘moral conscience’.

We encourage boards to be thoughtful about rather than obedient to Codes of Governance, and always link their work to impact, results and securing value.

Meet the author: Professor Andrew Corbett-Nolan

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