Minding the governance gap in leadership

“Leadership,” as James MacGregor Burns wrote back in 1978, “is one of the most observed and least understood phenomena on earth.” But that hasn’t stopped hordes of scholars from digging into the topic. Over the past three plus decades, hundreds of books and thousands of articles on leadership have been authored by writers representing the academy, the marketplace, the nonprofit sector, government, and the church.

stick_figure_book_pile_9092Every year or so, a new metaphor, typology, or schema bursts on the scene. Stephen Covey’s seven disciplines. Spencer Johnson asking who moved the cheese. Max DePree and leadership jazz. Jim Collins and his bus — more recently, the 20-mile march. The list goes on. Leadership, leading, and the leader have been studied, critiqued, and re-visioned to the point that writing partners Warren Bennis and Bert Nanus can claim to have found 850 different definitions of leadership. (Most of the definitions, I suspect, aren’t all that unique, but you have to admit, the number is impressive.)

Yet writers continue to tackle the topic —  including, at the moment, me. I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter on leadership to a festschrift honoring the late Dr. Luke Keefer, a longtime faculty member at Ashland (OH) Theological Seminary and esteemed theologian within the Brethren in Christ Church (my denomination).


As regular readers of Generous Matters would expect, I’ve attacked the leadership literature eager for new insights into the role of boards. What I’ve found instead is nothing, nada, not a thing about board governance – or almost. Of the 40 or so books and more than 70 articles that I’ve read (skimmed) so far, a mere handful mention boards, and much of that made me cringe.

It’s been an eye-opener to discover how deep, wide, and seldom bridged is the divide between the literature on leadership and that on governance. The CEO is a major player in everything written about/for boards. Only infrequently do authors writing on leadership return the favor.

We shouldn’t be surprised then, I suppose, when heads of faith-based nonprofits (and here I include pastors) give short-shrift to boards. Almost nothing in what they read about leadership and organizational dynamics encourages nonprofit CEOs to think otherwise.

Nor should it surprise if board members — many of whom carry (or did) the title of “leader” in their “day jobs,” – fail to appreciate board work as leadership. Board members read the same books, articles, journals, etc. as nonprofit CEOs, and nothing in that reading encourages them to think otherwise.

I put my research finding out there without conclusion other than the need for serious bridge-building between leadership and governance. It’s what I attempt to do here at Generous Matters and via my consulting practice. There are others doing the same — others who believe with me that governance is at the heart of leadership.

If you’re in this camp, let me hear from you. What are you doing to address the governance gap in the leadership literature? What are you doing to help CEOs and board members maximize the leadership power of the board’s work?

For more on maximizing the leadership of the board, see:

10 proposals for upping your boards value-added quotient

Re-visioning nonprofit boards as innovators and change-agents

Shared governance and the cooperation instinct



  1. David Brandt says:

    Thanks, Rebecca, for this blog. It reminded me of another writer making a similar point. On page xix, Richard Chait in “Governance as Leadership” states that Barnes and Noble lists 27,220 books with the keyword “leader” or “leadership,” compared with 2,349 with the keyword “trustee,” “trusteeship,’ or “governance.” This list reflects a 12:1 ratio of leadership books to governance books. By the way, I am a great fan of Chait’s book.

    • I, too, am a fan of the Chait, Ryan, Taylor book Governance as Leadership — so much so that I have two copies on my bookshelf. That said, I missed the section in the Preface titled “One River, Not Two Streams” where the trio writes: “Despite the differential output (your reference), leadership and governance are closely related, and the more clearly this linkage is seen, the brighter the prospects will be for better nonprofit governance.” In turn, I would suggest the linkage would brighten as well the prospects for better nonprofit leadership.

      Thanks for commenting, Dave. It’s great to know you are reading Generous Matters.

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