The Interdependence of Leadership and Governance


Many years ago I knew a young college basketball coach. I was interested in his approach to the game because the success his teams achieved was much higher than the inherent talent of his players would imply. It was obvious they were disciplined. You could see it in the way they approached practices, how they behaved on the bench and in the intensity with which they played on the floor. As I listened to him describe his philosophy of coaching, I was impressed by one tenet – the system is more important than the individual players. He found a way to overcome a deficit in talent by organizing a strong collective system.

As I understood more about the way he approached the game, I noticed certain characteristics about his coaching. First, there was very little freelancing. Both on offense and defense they executed with a precision uncharacteristic of most teams I had seen at that time. Very little was left to chance as shot selection was yielded directly from the offense, not from the individual skill of players. Second, his players trusted the system and each other. Since they all knew what the offense or defense was trying to accomplish, they understood that success was not about scoring or defending alone. They were trying to accomplish very specific things – where and when the shot would come, as well as what they were trying to force the opposing offense to do. Third, he always wanted to control as much about the game as he could by slowing or accelerating the tempo of play, forcing an opposing coach to make adjustments and forcing the opposing players to take shots from areas on the floor different than their normal offense would prescribe.

I admired his success, which has continued to this day, as he is now the head coach at an NCAA Division I university. However, he always reminded me that the success of his disciplined, systematic approach could only take his team so far. He would often look at me and say, “In the end, talent wins.” I found it interesting that a coach with a clear dedication to a system also recognized the essential contributions of the individual. He was a “both/and” coach who respected individual talent, but remained committed to a collective system.

Since then I have wondered about the power of the system vs. the power of the individual. Several examples come to mind. Society benefits from compassionate charismatic leadership on many levels. We all know individuals who by force of personality and persuasion have a capacity to influence others. My observation is most of the time this works if the talented leader is also submissive to the collective interest. Yet we have seen many situations in corporate leadership, religious institutions and governments where individual talent is gradually corrupted into individual control and self-interest. Eventually, the organization, community or society is robbed of its integrity as the needs and interests of one, compromise the well-being of all.

A system, like an individual, also has its limitations. It can be too confining, driving out the creativity that sparks innovation and new ideas. The collective work of the system requires an enormous commitment to tend to the health of the organization in a way that can ensure progress, without compromising underlying values. The system relies on interdependence, integration and alignment to do this. The collective will of an assembled group charged with the responsibility to achieve a goal is incredibly powerful. The shadow side, however, is the weight of collective action can sometimes slow the process and lead to a means-end reversal where the process becomes the goal and the achievement of the goal is lost in process. 

Leadership and governance taken together represent the interdependence of individual talent and the collective system. If we are nostalgic about the past, we would argue we used to get this right. Leaders knew how to inspire and animate us to action and governing bodies knew how to organize us toward effective process and result. My sense is we never get this quite right, but each organization, community and nation struggles to maintain a healthy interdependence of the two, however imperfect. The real issue is not whether we can get it perfect, but whether we can maintain essential functionality. Today we are struggling with many settings in which dysfunction is the norm, and frustration is growing. It’s as if our societal tolerance is waning as leaders seem to fail us too often and governing bodies descend into intractable conflict.

What’s changed? Is there anything different? Perhaps. The emergence of global digital communication is a massive change in societies around the world we have not yet learned to manage. I think this will take many years to sort out. Leaders are learning what used to be privileged or private communication is no longer acceptable, at least not as we once knew it. They are finding speculation, testing ideas and open dialogue are high risk activities. Leaders are having marginal impact as ideology rules, litmus tests abound and pledges to take or not take certain actions defy reason and confine action. It’s just not safe to make a move – better to pass the ball. Public scrutiny is now heightened to a level in which the zone of trust is quite narrow.  

The power of talented leadership has been tempered by an expanding role for governance. Concurrently, as the pressure on governance becomes more intense with higher expectations for results, our systems are being tested by an expanding chorus of voices that are increasingly dissonant. The length of process time for governance has been reduced to hours and minutes rather than weeks or months. Individual voices ring out in public distress making the environment for conversation toxic before the process even begins. In the end we find ourselves suffering under a paralysis of leadership and systems of governance that are widely dysfunctional.

Moving forward will not be easy and it will take time to accomplish, but here is how I think we can make progress. First, despite the speed of communication, we must find a way to think with longer time horizons in mind. The depth of the challenges we face in the United States and around the world will not be solved in one election cycle, but many. If our leaders could begin to talk about a plan for 2020 or 2030 rather than December of 2012, we will begin to view our choices with a different lens. It will take extraordinary leadership to do this, but it will be worth it in the long run. 

Second, we must become realistic about what even highly-talented leadership can accomplish. A national or global economy is not “managed” by anyone. The interdependent systems that drive economic progress are highly interdependent and will only be advanced by collective action. 

Third, we have to abandon the false dichotomies dominating the rhetoric of the day. Once we acknowledge most solutions will come through a “both/and” approach, rather than an “either/or” default, we will see new synergies that open new pathways to shared success.

If we do not embrace the interdependence of leadership and governance soon within the systems we have, I think we will eventually exhaust ourselves and begin to look for new systems. The consequences of exhaustion, however, are being manifested in areas of the world where leadership and governance have failed. We have an opportunity ahead to find a new balance point. It begins with recognizing we are on the same team.

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8 responses to “The Interdependence of Leadership and Governance”

  1. Ross Vermeer says:

    Dr Putnam, I have been reading your posts from the start of this blog, and have contributed comments to several of them. I, like many readers, nearly all of us Central alumni, faculty, or students, have posed questions about your vision for Central, your plan for its future, and your philosophy of higher education. These questions have been addressed only by other participants in this forum.

    I will try asking some direct questions one last time.

    Many signs – economic, political and philosophical – point to an impending crisis in higher education. Student debt in the USA has passed 1 trillion dollars. The job market for graduates is dismal. The cost of attending college has increased at a rate several times that of inflation for many years. A recent study showed that a disturbingly large fraction of college graduates learn essentially nothing in four years’ worth of attendance.

    Many perceptive observers look at this confluence of factors and see higher education as the next great ‘bubble’, similar to the housing bubble of the past few years. There are too many graduates, too few jobs that require them, too much government-fueled debt, too many threats from alternative forms of higher education and credentialing – they believe something is soon going to give way. The great 20th-century assumption that higher education at a residential four-year institution is the best means of achieving the American dream may end, and it may end very quickly indeed. Many people who never doubted their desire to send their children to study for traditional four-year degrees are rethinking that assumption. If even a minority decides a degree is no longer necessary, or that it can be earned via an alternative path, then the effects on America’s universities and colleges will be profound.

    Institutions with prominent brand names will be fine when the bubble breaks. It’s ironic that those institutions with the least to lose – such as MIT, Stanford, Princeton and Harvard – have embraced major online teaching and learning initiatives such as edX and Coursera.

    This very issue – manifested in a difference in vision between leadership and governance – has very recently sparked a crisis at the University of Virginia. UVA’s governance, in the form of its trustees, believe the University must change sharply in order to prepare for the future. Its leader, i.e. its president, believes in more cautious, incremental change. The story of UVA’s trustees’ forcing out of its president has received national attention.

    If even one of the nation’s leading public universities is conflicted about its future prospects to this degree, then what about smaller and less well-known institutions? How will they prepare themselves for the bursting of the bubble that has fed their student rolls and coffers for the past several decades? Central is a fine college, but it is not a prominent brand name. It is vulnerable.

    Dr Putnam, if the education bubble breaks, and there is a significant drop in the number of students looking to study at liberal arts colleges, then what is your plan? You say we should be looking at the longer term, i.e. 8 or 18 years down the road. What will Central look like in 2020, or 2030? How much will it cost? Who will its students be? How will they pay for their study? Are you banking on the assumption that nothing important will really change?

    • Patsy Hoekstra, PMP®, Class of '74 says:

      Ross, as a long time lurker on this blog, I beg you to please stay in the room. The questions you have posed here so patiently, have serious, long-term implications for Central College, its students and other stakeholders. With all due repect to Drs. Putnam and Hoffman, the basketball analogy is almost silly in its simplicity and not a good analogy to the problem of leading Central into the future. Afterall, the goal at the tip off is well known: win the game. And the goal of Central College is to: (leader fill in the blank please).

      From a Project Manager Professional (PMP) point of view, a basketball coach already has a project charter when the game begins. The President of Central College may or may not have gone through the project initiating process or applied the discipline to develop and articulate “The Project Charter.” Isn’t it time to revisit the Central’s charter and see how it fits with the issues so elequently presented in Ross Vermeer’s posts?

      As a suggested path forward, consider the elaborative process offered by The Project Management Institute ( if it were applied to the problem of mapping a new Central charter and developing a scope of work, budget and schedule to achieve charter goals. PMI “serves practitioners and organizations with standards that describe good practices, globally recognized credentials that certify project management expertise, and resources for professional development, networking and community.” This is the answer to leadership development all over the globe. PMI’s standard practices can be applied to any field of study or endeavour, even basketball or building Central’s future.

      Perhaps in some bright future Central will enhance its brand by graduating students that have both a BA and PMI membership and certification on their resumes. The possibilities are limitless.

      Hourly human resources (aka laborers) on the big project construction site would advise Dr. Putnam to “Either lead, follow or get out of the way.” I know, because that’s what they told me. That simple edict has made me a more effective and productive person.

      • Don Huffman says:

        As far as I know an analogy is as simple or as complex as the effort one makes to decide what reference the analogy has to real problems. It is not just a simplistic view of reality unless one perceives it to be simplistic.
        I confess to be unfamiliar with a Product Manager Professional, but it may well be a helpful means of assessing and solving of problems of the sort that higher education is facing.

        • don huffman says:

          I looked up information about PMI’s on the web, but after reading about PMIs it looks to me like there is no guarantee that problems will be solved anymore efficiently than with the current systems used widely. Do we really need more bureaucratic systems to solve difficult problems?

          • Patsy Hoekstra, PMP®, Class of '74 says:

            Almost all government contracts require the leader of the project who is charged with delivering the goods or services must have PMP certification. It is written into US Federal Government contract law. The system, the network of professionals and the clients PMP’s serve are well established. Before dismissing the idea out of hand, you might give the idea at least a cursory study. If a college student were to graduate with a BA, PMP certification and the experience of being in charge of a project while an undergraduate, they could hit the job market with a real edge on their competitors with respect to credentials, exprience and real-world references. The community at large and possibly local businesses and college donors could also benefit from project work completed by the college community.
            Honestly, I really do not have a dog in this fight. I am merely a Central alumnus that would like to see the college function and survive into perpetuity. It’s just an idea. Maybe not a good one.

      • Ross Vermeer says:

        Thanks for the kind words, Patsy. I agree that the essence of leadership is identifying the right goal — a vision, if you will — and finding ways to convince others to focus on and pursue it. I do quite a bit of project management in my job as well, and learning its deceptively simple principles took me a long time.

        One additional note: this announcement is a good example of the wave of disruption to higher education that is currently building. In short, Governor Walker in Wisconsin is promoting a new model for earning degrees in the WI higher ed system. It’s based on assessment instead of putting in time in a classroom, so it will open the door to students to prepare for competency-based exams via a variety of methods, including online courses and free courseware (e.g. from places such as edX and Coursera). Credits earned will be transferable throughout the WI system, so students will be able to earn U of WI degrees for far less money.

        Decoupling credentials from the traditional four-year face-to-face model is a key to bursting the higher ed bubble. If other big state systems follow Wisconsin, the effects may snowball.

        In the context of Central’s future, how many students from Wisconsin currently attend? And what if Iowa were to follow Wisconsin’s lead? Might that not effect CUI?

  2. Don Huffman says:

    I resonate with the comparison of a basketball team to the issue of interdependence of leadership and governance in higher education. While Ross has mentioned many of the recognized problems currently facing higher education, I don’t feel there is anyone who has the necessary answers to these problems at the moment. I’m inclined to pursue the basketball analogy a bit further.
    Most people who really know basketball will agree that the system is ultimately more important than the inherent talents of the players. But, there is little evidence that one system is inherently better than another,and each system has its limitations. Either defensively or offensively there is no perfect system.
    A system usually succeeds because: 1)it makes it possible for each player to know and trust where teammates will be and what they can be expected to do; 2) it nearly guarantees that if the correct passes and screens are well executed an open shot will be available from the preferred player and the preferred distance; 3) most systems have alternate passes and screens if the opponents have begun to anticipate and interfere with the first or later options; 4)most systems have continuous flow of player movement which allows essentially a nearly endless variety of patterns for both offensive and defensive systems. However, it is important that a coach recruit players who do have sufficient ability to shoot, pass, defend, rebound, etc. These skills can be improved with serious practice, but the latent ability must be there, and that is not always easy to see. If the skills are evident many other coaches will have tried to recruit that player.
    A good team is not easily developed overnight, so the coach realizes that longer horizons are necessary and interdependence with other goals of the institution must be met if there is to be a chance of positive competition with other teams.
    Within limits a good system can usually guarantee that a team will be competitive, and with a bit of luck, they may win lots of games.