I was recently presented with these words, reported to be from former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher: “Consensus is the absence of leadership.”
Coming from a perspective of intense interest in the subject of followership and group dynamics, this perspective instantly set off in me varying degrees of umbrage and frustration.
I work for an organization that has one of its core values as ‘participatory servant leadership’, which is said to include the pursuit of consensus-building and interactive team decision-making processes.
True enough, it is possible for leaders to be delinquent in some of their leadership responsibilities by hiding behind the label of ‘participatory servant leadership’, but is the pursuit of broad agreement in decision-making truly, as Thatcher states, an absence of leadership?
My thinking on followership–which includes a high value on all members taking ownership for an endeavor and also the responsibility of participating in both decision-making and decision-taking (implementing and supporting the outcome of a decision-making process)–would paint the pursuit of consensus as a welcome opportunity for all members of the team (leaders & followers alike) to contribute and have a vested interest in the dialogue and the outcome. After all, the more we can avoid imposed change in favor of intentional (and invested) change, the less strain–in terms of interpersonal time, energy, and stress–we will experience and the greater success we can expect in the aftermath of our decision-making.
Why would Thatcher describe such a process with such negative sentiment? Because she has a different view of what consensus entails.
Here’s another quote reported to be from her: “Consensus: the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values, and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner: ‘I stand for consensus’?”
With this elaboration, Thatcher’s perspective becomes a little more clear. For her, consensus requires that everyone give up everything they hold dear because the pursuit of agreement becomes the highest aim and sole desired outcome. She seems to believe that great change only happens because someone avoids consensus and instead clings to those beliefs, principles, values, and policies.
While I do believe that conformity is, to some degree, a necessary part of successful organizational affiliation, certainly positive change is most likely to come from someone who is not merely going with the flow of things and seeking internal group harmony as the ultimate aim of the organization.
But Thatcher’s view of consensus seems to indicate that there is no hope for a true shifting of perspective, a reasonable compromise on behalf of all parties; it seems to be all or nothing–if you want consensus, everyone abandons all that really matters.
For me, the leader-follower dynamic requires intense investment in relationship and communication. If that communication is founded upon trust and fueled by a perspective of amity rather than enmity, where contributors see themselves as collaborators rather than opponents, then surely it is both possible and ideal to realize the development of a shared perspective–whether that results in one or the other parties letting go of some views, or both discovering together and adopting a fresh orientation to the issue at hand.
The possibility for consensus is evidence of a healthy and well-founded leader-follower relationship, and the outcome of consensus–in terms of ownership, participation, and achievement of common purpose–seems far more effective that any results that could be achieved by what I fear Thatcher might have in mind when she’s thinking of what (non-consensus-oriented) leadership should always look like.
Let’s see if we can’t both lead and follow, while pursuing consensus through dialogue and relationship for the benefit of ourselves and our associations.
So, I have to ask: do you agree with me? Do we have consensus?
For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following with excellence and helping others to do the same (with specific thoughts on ownership in Chapter 7 and decision-taking in Chapter 5), see:
Embracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Kirkdale Press, Feb 2016)
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