Balancing Corp. Vs Gov. Needs

Misleading Analogies

Dave Kinnear 1-On Leadership


Well-made analogies can be quite useful, informative, and enlightening. Or, they can be ill-formed and carried too far. Here’s a definition:

a·nal·o·gy: a comparison between two things, typically based on their structure and for explanation or clarification.

That seems straightforward enough. I like analogies and use them often. But some common analogies I find to be less than useful.

One such “pet peeve” is when people state that our “government should be run like a business.” Well, no, it shouldn’t. Neither should we run a business like a government! The goal and function of a government are not much like a well run and focused company. Our politicians rightfully focus the government on social value, not profits. Sure, there are a few organization, management, and development “principles” that all organizations have in common — like not going

too far into debt, developing personnel, having a compelling vision, etc. But businesses are generally organized to maximize shareholder value, and we establish governments to provide social value and provide law and order.


How about a “not-for-profit” company? Would that analogy work? Not so much, I think. Indeed, we don’t typically want the government to make a profit on the taxpayer’s dime. But perhaps we do want them to collect more revenue than needed in regular economic times and put the excess away for those times when we need and expect the government to be the consumer of last resort to keep the economy viable in a downturn. We usually focus a not-for-profit on some social value, but it has mostly volunteers doing the heavy lifting, not union employees.

How about the budgeting, forecasting, and demand generation? In this case, I’m happy that our businesses aren’t like the government! But I’m afraid I have to disagree that properly running the government is to make it more like a company. Discipline? Yes. Strive for continuous improvement? Of course. Pay attention to all the stakeholders? Absolutely. Still, we can not run a government like a for-profit business — public or private.

I use this “bad analogy” as an example because we can easily see the intention of those who use it. People would essentially like the government to be more efficient, responsible, understand businesses better. We want that understanding to support rather than hinder business and establish the rule of law for all to have an equal opportunity to thrive. But we don’t want our government focused on profit, growing, or getting a more significant piece of the pie.

Body Fat

Here’s my analogy:

Government is like body fat. We must have some to survive, but we should have the least amount possible to maintain robust health. Money is like fast food, and it creates an abundance of unhealthy body fat. We do best when we get the government off the fast food.

I wonder how many of us think about the analogies we use concerning our business organization. Have we chosen carefully? As leaders, we are charged with many things, including making a compelling vision for our organization to follow. Often that means building an appropriate analogy — and not taking it too far! Do you use metaphors to explain your company, its markets, its customers, and its competitors? Does your analogy hold?

[Updated 9/16/2017 Lightly edited in 9/2020 for our new website.]