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Consensus vs. a Mustachioed Potato Ship

May 1, 2016 | JSE Blog

When my daughter was two years old, she suddenly turned from a sweet, ambling ray of sunshine into a mercurial rebel without a cause, challenging authority at every turn. Not a scenario completely unheard of for that age group, I know. Matt and I laugh about it now, but that James Dean stage of her life resulted in lots of frustration, tears, and time outs- for everyone! One day in particular she refused to do something that I’d asked of her. It must have been a long day because I remember throw-ing my hands up and telling her in no uncertain terms that our household was not a democracy but a dictatorship. She shook her head vehemently and cried: “No! No! No! Potato ship!”

I struggled mightily to keep a straight face. Potato ship, indeed.

I recall that story not just to share a bit about life in the parenting trenches (stories that I’m sure many of you could match or beat), but as a segue to today’s topic: leadership. I recently finished a book that waxed poetic on a variety of topics, including (you guessed it) leadership. The author, a military veter-an with a strong leadership background himself, has an interesting point of view on the subject that I wanted to share as it has correlations to the business world. He had more than a few things to say about the disadvantages of leading by consensus. Leading by consensus is a popular concept today, perhaps because it seems so democratic. For those unfamiliar with that way of corporate governance, it works a bit like the jury system in the United States: everyone in the group must agree on a course of action in order to move forward. So in a board meeting even one “nay” automatically tables an issue for perpetuity, or until said dissenter can be persuaded, gives up, or leaves the board. It takes little imagination to see how such a set-up would affect the daily ins and outs of running a business; in the worst scenario, paralysis, in the best, mediocrity. How much of an otherwise great plan’s integrity could be eroded by the compromise process, increasingly becoming more of a lose-lose scenario for all involved instead of a great course of action for the company and its interests?

What is the alternative, then? Was the author proposing that we all grow a moustache and insist on being call “El Presidente”? Certainly not, but, by way of an aside, how oddly coincidental it is that many dictators of the past and present were (and in the persons of a few current African dictators, are ) mustachioed? Examples include Spain’s Franco, Hitler, Castro, Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muam-mar Gaddafi, and Stalin. Even Benito Mussolini went through a brief moustache phase; Catherine the Great reportedly had hers waxed. (Just kidding.)

Anyway, back to the point: in order to be effective leaders, must we be strong handed? That’s a re-sounding “no” (going back to our dictatorship metaphor, relatively speaking, mustachioed despots rarely remain in power for too long.) The author wasn’t proposing corporate martial law, but rather radical ownership of our decisions, both personal and professional.

A good leader mobilizes and inspires the people who he leads, harnesses the group’s strengths, and safeguard’s the group’s interests even when they run counter to his own. Part of that leadership pro-cess includes gathering information, soliciting input from other team members, and brainstorming. But in the end, a leader must look at the information, make a call, and accept accountability for that decision… in essence, earn that cushy corner office.

I’ll sign off with a few words from one of the mightiest leaders of the 20th century, Winston Churchill: “The nation will find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are keeping their ears to the ground.” It looks like the former British Prime Minister had a few things to say about consensus leadership, too.

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