Why governance professionals should promote the Galileo Principle

There may seem little in common between Galileo and company secretaries and other governance professionals, but bear with me!

Galileo (1564 – 1642) lived towards the end of the Renaissance period, a time of social and cultural change which produced other great cultural polymaths such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Galileo was known as both the ‘Father of Modern Science’ and the ‘Father of Physics’, such was his expertise in astronomy, engineering and mathematics. And yet he died under house arrest, after being found guilty of heresy by the Roman Inquisition.

One of his ‘crimes’ was to promote the concept of heliocentricism, the astronomical model in which the Earth and planets revolve around the Sun at the center of the Solar System. Effectively, Galileo brought to consciousness the reality that, whatever everyone else thought at the time (namely that the Earth was the centre of the Universe), a different ‘world order’ existed. From that point on it became impossible to ignore the truth, and people had to learn (eventually) to accept that the basis on which the world rotated required a new understanding.

And so it is with organisations and governance. I have coined the term the Galileo Principle to explain to directors and boards that, no matter what they thought it was which was helping the company survive (and maybe prosper), they can no longer resort to a mistaken set of beliefs, based on ignorance, of what it takes to create (organisational) stability. Instead, they need to recognise the reality that there is a body of thought, called governance, which explains quite scientifically the steps which can be taken to improve the prospects of organisational stability, and business success. As with Galileo, now that thinking has been brought to the board’s consciousness, it needs to adopt the new learnings.

I have found the analysis useful in my work with boards – directors have accepted the analogy.

The reason I felt compelled to blog about the Galileo Principle was as a result of reading a post by Lucy Marcus which asks why business leaders aren’t getting the governance message. Lucy analysed the recent World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report 2016, as well as the discussions which took place at this year’s Davos sessions, and observed that, while business leaders were prepared to discuss every issue under the sun (back to Galileo!) they would not talk openly about the issues around the running of companies which have seen so many recent value-destruction disasters and scandals (she cites Volkswagen, Toshiba, Valeant, and FIFA but the list, as we know, is very much longer).

Company secretaries are critical in terms of the role they play inside boardrooms, and a strong and empowered company secretary is vital for the governance health of a board. Value destruction lies potentially around every corner, and a good company secretary is one of the people who can take that wider view that ‘course correction’ is needed. It means from time to time the espousing of the Galileo Principle – a reminder of the existence of governance, the power of good governance well implemented, and the importance of governance leadership by the board.

And without the fear of house arrest as a consequence!