How to Know If You Are Effectively Leading by Consensus

I don’t know about you, but I love to watch people.

When I lived in California and visited San Francisco, some of the most fun of the day was walking through the city and just observing all of the unique and eccentric people or people groups. The human statue. The man playing the nose flute. The guy declaring the apocalypse was upon us. And all free.

As humans, we are all so alike yet all so very different.

Do you also find it interesting to watch the leadership styles of individuals and how they get things done?

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles |
Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles |

I do.

And regardless of the type of leader, whether business, teacher, pastor, or leader-wanna-be, leaders can move people or projects from one position or phase to another, but how they do it is the great determiner between pushing and following.

I have seen two styles of leadership that stand out to me: 1) those who get things done by forging ahead, surprising people, clueless of who they have left in their wake, and 2) those who get things done, painfully, over much time, as they have to get consensus before moving the ship forward. There are usually good motives behind getting everyone on board, but progress is slow and in the end there are still those who disagree.

Unfortunately, I have had past ordeals where I have dabbled in too much of both.

I have had some memorable experiences in my prior academic life as a VP of Academics. I desire to be a people-oriented leader and take into consideration the opinions and voices of others. But yet as the visionary there are times when the “trigger just has to get pulled.”

I can think of situations where I made a decision without considering all those who might be impacted, and then one of my people confronted me on it…and I had nothing to say in defense. I just took “trust money” out of their bank.

I can also think of situations where I have so desired to get everyone in agreement on a decision that I fell into analysis-paralysis and the wheel of progress began to grind…to…a…halt. And after all of the time I spent, people were disillusioned that we had not made any movement forward.

“Well pardon me, but I was just trying to make sure you all were in agreement with our direction!”

Neither extreme is effective.

In today’s post I want to spend a bit of time on the latter of the two – leading by consensus. Oft times we think about leading by consensus like making decisions means the leader has to spend an exuberant amount of time convincing and cajoling. And that things are at a standstill until everyone supports the initiative.

I viewed an interesting slide-share by Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google. As Schmidt comments, we fail to understand what consensus means. As I read this next quote, what I saw were two types of people who emerge: those who are convincers and those who are visionaries and executors.

It’s not about everyone agreeing, it’s about everyone being heard and then rallying around the best answer.

Think about it for a moment. If I am not the one making a decision, what really builds trust for me is when my up-line asks for my opinion because he or she wants to make a best decision. In general, people just want to be heard. Especially if they are impacted in any way by the outcome. Expect outspoken criticism and complaining when decisions are made without people being heard.

A fault of mine in the past has been thinking my role is to exert energy in getting everyone to come to my side.

That is not it at all.

I communicate. I listen. I then make a best decision.

Schmidt also says this:

When it comes to communication, default to openMaximize the velocity and volume of information flow.

In other words, get information out ahead of the curve so that your people are not surprised. No one likes being the last to know. And get as much information out as you possibly can. Treat those you lead like you want want your family to treat you.

That means both giving and receiving information.

If you want to erode trust as a leader, let your people, students, teammates find out information after the decision was made and exclude those who have a vested interest and want to follow you.

But if you want to lead by consensus, and do it with effectiveness, realize that you do not have to have 100% agreement before a decision can be made. The competent shepherd sees a decision that needs to be made, gathers his people around, lays out the vision, asks for feedback and listens, and then makes a decision that is in the best interest of all who have a stake in the direction being set.

As I have chosen to operate with this definition of consensus, I have seen the appreciation and gratefulness of those around me who have been intentionally brought into the picture. They may not necessarily agree with everything, but they have been heard. And because of that they can follow and get behind me because they support the bigger success of the vision.

And it will create the type or culture and environment that generates creativity and trust among the group who is looking to you to move them to the next mountain top or through the next valley.

And best yet, you have a much greater chance of making a best decision because there is a safety in hearing many perspectives from those who are key to the future.

Lead by consensus, but first understand what it means and what it does not mean. Your people will be grateful you did. And they will follow.





8 thoughts on “How to Know If You Are Effectively Leading by Consensus

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Most leaders rush so much to get things done that they forget that the people impacted by any decision can create significant friction when they don’t feel heard. Listen first, launch on the option that has more upside than downside!

    • I have learned some good lessons on this issue – do it one or two times and it cures you for the future. And you are correct…listen first!

      Thanks for commenting, Scott. I appreciate it!

  2. And that is a good conversation to have!

    Those were some good days being on the “Ed Team” together! Crazy with a capital C but they were good. You doing well? Teaching the same classes?

    • I’m sorry, but I had to laugh when I read your response. Flashbacks baby! 🙂

      Still have sprained ankles from those ditches!

      Thanks for reading and commenting, JB. Miss our working together. We made a good team!

      • Yes we did! Amazing how leadership is ultimately a lifestyle of balance which is created by a high level of discipline. Going into either ditch is the easier way forward.

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