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The Essence of Leadership

What is more important, leadership or teamwork? Leadership or consensus management? Today we hear frequently about teams, team-building, and teamwork on the one hand and management by consensus on the other. Although both teamwork and consensus building are critical skills in a leader, neither are substitutes for capable leadership itself. Instead, both, as commonly practiced in business today, are an over reaction to past autocratic management styles.

What really is leadership? My working definition of leadership is: "Providing the capable oversight, guidance and governance necessary to direct a group a people in the successful attainment of a shared vision." Note that neither the words team nor consensus are mentioned in this definition. This in no manner diminishes the importance of these two criteria for the leader, it merely reflects the reality of what leadership is and is not. Leadership is by nature both action and individual oriented. Leadership is not the function of a committee or even of a group, although the best organizations benefit greatly from having a group of leaders. There is a popular cliché: Leaders like eagles do not flock, you must find them one at a time." Although this sounds catchy, it is not fully true. Leaders do not "flock," but they are not "loners" either.

To return to our initial question ... leadership, teamwork, and consensus are all important, all necessary. In order to have effective teamwork and productive, real consensus (not just everyone waiting for clues as to what the boss thinks before expressing their opinion), the organization must have a firm foundation of capable leadership. I would add, "strong capable leadership," although I know that at hearing the "word" strong, some will immediately equate that to authoritarian or tyrannical rule. However, whether one sees a team of horses in a parade pulling a heavy circus wagon or a string of huskies pulling a dog sled, the lead animal does not dominate the others, but it does provide the essential function of leading the team. After all, someone must lead. Over my thirty plus years of business experience, I have participated in many, many management committees (teams), but in every case the effectiveness of the committee was determined directly by the apparent or de facto leader. There is an old axiom that is very true: "The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack!" No group outperforms its leadership, at least not for long.

Thus, effective and efficient leadership is provided by individuals, note the plural form of the word, but not individuals working individually. Rather, individuals cooperating in collaboration within a hierarchy. Now "hierarchy" has become another "dirty" word in modern organizational thought. However, the reality is that without some form of hierarchy, we have either chaos or stagnation. Due to the reactionary dismissal of hierarchy by many organizations today, stemming from a decades long disagreeable experience with corporate heavy-handedness, in many quarters no decision whatsoever can be made unless every team member and stakeholder is in unqualified consensus.

Is it any wonder we see such paralysis in the corporate world? Decisions that formerly required days or weeks to gather the necessary facts and reach a conclusion to action, now require months or even years, as the team waits to achieve "buy-in" by all parties, even where the facts point to an obvious and immediate conclusion.

More than twenty years ago, I worked as a director for a corporation in the energy business. We operated with a CEO and seven director level positions, all filled by strong individuals. It was not uncommon for our management meetings to become quite loud as those strong personalities vociferously championed their equally strong views. By the end of these boisterous sessions, we often had reached a natural consensus, but on occasion, we were more divided than when we had begun. In these instances, our CEO would make an executive decision, normally right then and there, based upon the facts as he had heard them forcefully debated.

Not everyone was happy with the outcome of such executive edicts, but we were never unhappy about the fact that he had made a decision, and more importantly, we all got behind his decision to get the job done as quickly and effectively as possible. Our form of reaching consensus in those instances was simple: full and open discussion, sometimes peppered with heated argument; a command decision; acceptance by all! As long as the issues and decisions do not compromise moral or ethical integrity, this remains the most efficient manner for organizations, especially businesses, to advance issues.

It is important to state that not all of the decisions reached in this way were right. Some over the course of time proved to be entirely wrong, as did an equal number of the decisions we reached through consensus of the entire management team. Contrary to popular belief, consensus is not a guarantee of optimal decision making.

This in no way means that good leaders act in a vacuum or as a "majority of one." In fact, just the opposite is true. The reason our management team at the energy company worked together so well was that the CEO, although vested with final decision making authority, was not an autocrat, but rather a consensus builder. Effective leaders understand the value of collaboration, and they actively and continuously seek to develop avenues of collaboration within their organizations. One of the methods by which highly effective and successful leaders encourage and foster collaboration is through building cooperative networks, both within and outside of the organization, but especially within the leader's own management team.

Leadership also requires vision, as I have said in the definition earlier, and vision is based upon aggressive, forward-looking strategy development. However, this too is a problem within our organizational cultures today, especially in America. A recent surveyi of 2,700 CEO's in nine countries reveals that American CEO's spend 22% of their time on strategic issues, 17% on fire-fighting crises, and 10% on work that they admit could be delegated. In contrast, their counterparts around the world are significantly more focused on the strategic issues confronting their businesses.

Today, more than ever before, our organizations need leaders who are flexible as to methods and techniques, but stalwart with regard to ethics, decisiveness, and vision. Such adept leadership will result in a collaborative organizational culture that in turn fosters teamwork and consensus.

Copyright 2005 by John Di Frances

John Di Frances is an internationallyrecognized organizationallegacy expert and professionalspeaker.

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