Brandt On Leadership -- The Art Of Consensus

Dec. 21, 2004
Savvy executives practice leadership by persuasion and politics.

Everyone loves a tough guy, especially during tough times. It seems all a CEO has to do to get ink these days is to swagger up to a podium and announce another 2,000 layoffs, along with a bold back-to-basics strategy. Shareholders applaud, the business press fawns, and employees -- at least the ones who still have jobs -- brace themselves for more turn-on-a-dime theatrics from the customer-free zone known as executive row. Yet maneuvering a firm through troubled waters is easier, not harder, than piloting during good times. Why? Because a crisis focuses your attention on three priorities -- cash flow, revenues, margins -- to the exclusion of all else. It's stressful, yes, but simple compared to plotting a course to the future. And it is downright child's play next to mastering the most important skill in the long-term leader's playbook: the Art of Consensus. Merriam-Webster Online defines consensus as "general agreement: unanimity." That kind of consensus is rare. What I mean by the Art of Consensus is, really, the Art of Negotiated Consensus -- getting team members to agree on a strategy and then to put their hearts and minds into implementing it. CEOs who lead for the long term may announce bold strategies, but they always seek to create a negotiated consensus among the stakeholders necessary to execute that vision. The Art of Consensus is even more important for leaders, managers, and employees below the CEO level. In fact, the less formal power a person has within an organization, the more important his or her skill at crafting a Negotiated Consensus will be. If you can't simply compel someone to do your bidding, then you must seek his or her agreement, cooperation, and commitment to help you. Of course, not every situation allows for consensus. Many others will allow only a partial consensus, at least at first. But almost all management issues and teams have some potential for consensus, and smart leaders know that one consensus breeds another as surely as one conflict leads to the next. How can you achieve a negotiated consensus? Three steps: Factual Agreement: Consensus isn't possible without agreement on the exact nature of the problem or situation that created conflict in the first place. Yet many leaders try to fix problems without first completing a diagnosis, often leading them to use Band-Aids when surgery is required. Smart leaders poll each stakeholder not just to ascertain the facts but also to uncover each stakeholder's individual understanding, interpretation, and emotions regarding those facts. By doing this methodically, a leader can frame the issue -- including certain aspects, excluding others -- in such a way as to make consensus possible. Moral and Ethical Agreement: Consensus also is impossible without the moral and ethical agreement of those involved. I use these words not only in their usual sense of personal right and wrong, but also as a way of evaluating whether a course of action fits with the mission, purpose, and culture of an organization. Tough-guy CEOs often ruin their chances for long-term success by violating cultural norms in ways that drive the best and brightest away. Smart leaders engage stakeholders on the issue of what feels right for them, individually and collectively, and then try to align those perspectives with the long-term needs of the organization. Political Agreement: Organizational politics have gotten a bad rep in recent years, yet savvy CEOs recognize what Otto von Bismarck, a tough guy in his own right, observed over 100 years ago: "Politics is the art of the possible." It's folly to think that even with factual and moral agreement you can bring all stakeholders to consensus. Each stakeholder has a different set of priorities, anxieties, and needs, which is why smart leaders spend the time necessary to outline to each stakeholder why the proposed consensus is important to that stakeholder -- now and in the future. Even the indifferent and unconcerned need to be persuaded, because while consensus doesn't require 100% enthusiasm, it must have less than 50% opposition. Tough guys equate lack of interest with lack of loyalty. Smart leaders recognize benign indifference on the part of uninterested stakeholders as the lubricant that makes the engine of consensus run. Don't you agree? John R. Brandt, formerly editor-in-chief of IndustryWeek, now is editorial director of the Chief Executive Group, publisher of Chief Executive magazine.

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