Democracy is a bad leadership style (Guest commentary)

The UN demonstrates why consensus building isn’t effective
By Mark Stevens
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/21/2006

There is no such thing as a consensus decision. It is an oxymoron; a thinly veiled agreement not to make a decision. It is a pact that everyone will agree to do the wrong thing knowing that this is more socially acceptable than a strong and decisive leader standing up and declaring what she believes is the right direction to take.

In consensus-based companies, a strong leader acting unilaterally may be perceived as imperious, arrogant and insensitive. And to the consensus worshippers, that doesn’t seem democratic.

But corporate decision-making isn’t supposed to be a town hall meeting. Great leadership comes when a strong person assesses the facts and decides what to do and how to do it. Consensus occurs when the opportunistic and individualistic drive that makes companies succeed is replaced by a politically correct culture. And I can say with absolute conviction that this culture leads to certain decline and ultimate death.

To look at a living, breathing example of a consensus-driven wasteland, spend a day at the United Nations. You’ll witness a leaderless, rudderless organization that flounders around spending money and doing nothing but fuelling New York’s economy, thanks to the diplomats’ penchant for running up huge tabs.

In the name of consensus, the UN agrees not to agree on anything. Has the UN taken concerted action in the Middle East? Has it halted the genocide in Darfur? Does it take an active stance on terrorism? No. No. And no. Instead, its members engage in endless debates seeking consensus on complex issues that are not amenable to poetic displays of unanimity.

The same is true in the business world. In many ways, the UN is the mirror image of decision-making in millions of businesses, where it takes a myriad of ugly forms. Consider:

•the corporate policy that has been debated for years. (Should we open an office in China? Is it time to outsource those skills we don’t have internally?);

•the department head who will not or cannot make difficult decisions and no one forces the issue; or

•the CEO who cannot make a decision without the support of her senior managers, because doing so would be “bad form.”

During a difficult period, a member of the senior management team recognized the life insurance company he was with was in dire need of new products. My conversation with him went something like this:

Senior management:

I am personally sickened by our failure to generate the new products we need now.

Me:

Your competitors — MetLife, Prudential and Mass-Mutual — are churning them out. Why can’t you?

Senior management:

Because my damn new product guy isn’t getting his butt in gear.

Me:

Why don’t you get it in gear for him?

Senior management:

I’ve tried everything.

Me:

How about replacing him with someone who will get this crucial job done?

Senior management:

That would be a problem.

Me:

You have a problem now. Three thousand salespeople without a full package of products.

Senior management:

I know. I know. But I can’t replace Arnie. All the other senior people like him, protect him and I can’t afford dissension in the ranks. That’s not the way to manage a big company like this. Everything is so much easier to do around here when you have consensus.

Easier? Whoever said managing anything is easy? Peaceful? Pleasant? The fact is it’s often lonely — and you need to be able to withstand that. Nearly every great company, business unit or department was and is led by a lion of a man or a woman with a singular vision and the determination to act on it.

Is Steve Jobs a consensus builder? Was Henry Ford? Lee Iacocca? Michael Eisner? Mary Kay Ash? Estée Lauder? No. These extraordinary managers saw opportunities, marshalled their resources and acted. And they had to have the conviction and the courage to require that everyone in the business unit follow their lead. Unlike the UN and the IBM of the 1980s and the GM of today, debate has to be terminated and employees have to get behind the manager’s strategy. Sure they can offer input, opinions and warnings — and the manager must be open to all of this — but never with the goal of achieving committee-based consensus. Only with the goal of making iterative improvements in the strategy.

Mark Stevens is CEO of MSCO, a marketing and strategy consulting firm in White Plains, N.Y. He is the author of the newly released book, Your Management Sucks, from which this article is excerpted. For more information visit www.crownpublishing.com.

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