I Wonder if I Will Get a Consensus on This?

I have often heard the term consensus builder used to describe certain leadership styles. Each time I hear that the only thing that comes to mind is the acronym CYA.

At my alma mater the man who previously held the office of president prided himself on being a consensus builder. He was recently named to the presidency of a small Christian school. In an interview he said his leadership style was to build a strong team and find consensus on major decisions. His pet peeve was people who would complain about problems but not try to be a part of the solution.

As a point of reference when this man “retired” from my college the school had massive amounts of deferred maintenance, a substandard bond rating, declining enrollment, and a high discount rate. Whenever you approached this “leader” with a problem or concern his response was to touch you on the arm and respond “What do you think we should do?” He was so disengaged that by his own admittance he didn’t even attend faculty meetings. Most major decisions were vetted through the use of large unwieldy committees, often manned by a broad range of people who were ill equipped to manage the task at hand. 

Now I am all about getting input. Having an open door and and being willing to listen and entertain ideas and suggestions is both a healthy and viable mechanism to create a sense of ownership in your organization by its employees and supporters. But when trying to use consensus as a way to make decisions what often happens is that decisions never get made, or worse you engineer an inadequate solution to the problem in an effort to make everyone happy. To reiterate I believe in a strong team and I want input. In fact I want spirited discussion and even disagreement. But ultimately if I am in charge then I will make a decision and I won’t be concerned if it pleases everyone.

Consensus builders use that strategy as a way to defer blame. “We made that hire because that person was recommended by the search committee.” If the hire doesn’t work out the fault lies with the search committee. They also appear magnanimous. You often hear that consensus builders are “really nice people.” and “they care about everyone’s concerns.” Well I believe in being civil and respectful but I don’t think leadership is defined by having everyone like you. In education your focus better be your student body and donor base, in private business it better be your customers and shareholders, and in government it better be your constituents.

Most people in an organization want their leaders to make decisions and be proactive. Sometimes a member of an organization will have a problem and no recognizable way to solve it. If they are perceived as being not part of the team because they can’t bring a solution with them when they relate their concern, how long will it be before they stop voicing their concerns altogether? And if a leader is indecisive or wants every major decision made by a committee the onset of frustration amongst both the organizational work force and its client base is inevitable.

Being a leader can be lonely and challenging because to do it right you have to be both decisive and accountable. There are a lot of folks out there that are perfectly content with being told what to do and how to do it.  What is scary to me today is that in education and government you have people that want the role of leader but not the accountability that goes with it.

President Harry Truman had a sign on his desk. It said “The buck stops here.” We might still be fighting World War II if it had said “The buck is around here somewhere.”

About Merrill Wautlet

I am a finance professional and volunteer coach. I have also served in a leadership role for numerous non-profit and civic organizations. For a complete profile feel free to check me out on Linkedin.
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