Good governance equals transparency, accountability and integrity. These three core concepts are closely linked. A person who is transparent and therefore open about his actions, at the same time consciously exposes himself to scrutiny and thus makes himself accountable. Openness is also honest. Honesty is a sign of integrity. Of these three key concepts, integrity is the most important element.

Integrity is also the most difficult element. In general, you can judge fairly easily if someone is practicing openness but with integrity it’s a different story. It’s not difficult to point out people in our environment of whom we can argue that they don’t have integrity. These people will undoubtedly think that they do have complete integrity themselves. Their wife and children will think that too, as will possibly (some of) their business partners. This illustrates the problem with integrity.

Integrity is based on a subjective experience. Are there no fixed criteria at all then? Yes, absolutely. If you look in the dictionary you’ll find at least ten descriptions of integrity. They all more or less come down to the same thing. Integrity is about reliability. Integrity is about doing what you say and saying what you do. It’s about being honest and trustworthy. Those are all beautiful things. However, Al Capone’s henchmen are to be trusted as well (by him). His henchmen are honest to him and they say what they do and they do what they say. Does that mean they have integrity? Definitely not. So there’s something else that is important. Being good? That too is relative. I think the key is in the testability of behavior. People can think and find all kinds of things, but ultimately it comes down to what they do.

For this reason the concept of “tone at the top” has a prominent place in the assessment by external supervisory bodies such as the Central Bank of Curaçao and St. Maarten and the Central Bank of the Netherlands. The integrity testing of supervised financial institutions also includes an assessment of how the management behaves and how this is experienced at lower levels within the company. After all, endless lists of rules and regulations on how to behave with integrity have no effect whatsoever if these wonderful rules are not rooted in the management’s behavior. The management must literally set a good example. If the leaders of a company (or the leaders of a country, political party, religious movement, you name it) don’t behave as was agreed and as was put in writing, no one in the company will do so.

As human beings we are masters at formulating good intentions, beautiful thoughts and great promises. Based on this skill, we often even manage to rally many people behind us. History is littered with examples of this. You can think of grotesque examples such as Adolf Hitler, but also of ones that are more current and closer to home (I’ll leave the choice up to you). What it really comes down to is what someone actually does or decides not to do. Does that bring about something positive or is it only a negative development? The trouble is that this is often not easy to judge in the madness of the present. You frequently only see or realize (sometimes much) later if the behavior of a person or the management of a company has led to positive results.

That is the difficult task of each member of a Supervisory Board: not constantly saying ‘no’ or wanting to manage and control, but through joint consultation tasting the flavor of the management’s actions. Does it taste good or does the aftertaste make you a bit insecure? How can you observe this? Look at the people in the company. If they don’t perform well, the people at the top are definitely not performing well. The “tone at the top” always determines the purity of the symphony.

This blogpost is also available in Papiamentu. Click here to download a pdf version.

Do you have a question about corporate governance yourself? Please e-mail it to and perhaps your question will be discussed in the next blogpost.

That is the difficult task of each member of a Supervisory Board: not constantly saying ‘no’ or wanting to manage and control, but through joint consultation tasting the flavor of the management’s actions.