One of the key traits we associate with effective leadership is the ability to build consensus — convince the team to come to an agreement for the good of the whole. It’s not the only way to lead and there are plenty of theories that debunk it. But we still tend to associate it with success. I’ve got a colleague embroiled in a disagreement with a team these days, wishing a leader would come and rescue them by insisting they forge an agreement for the greater good, ego struggles aside.
There’s nobility in consensus, a powerful example these days is the Supreme Court. Partisanship aside, this year, the Supremes — in a sense, a moral and legal Board of Directors for the United States — set a record for coming to the most agreements in the last 70 years. They achieved consensus by carefully balancing their arguments and narrowing the focus of their decisions. They didn’t shoot the moon and set their egos and personal beliefs aside. That they were one member short meant if discussion derailed, it could mire them in a dysfunctional stalemate. So they agreed to work to agree, a classic example of consensus-building.
Meanwhile, we’re seeing far more examples of leaders whose effect on consensus is entirely different, and the stakes could not be higher. When faced with onerous global challenges, we want someone to set a course to safety we can all agree on. It’s just like being on a ship in a storm. But what happens when the designated captain doesn’t measure up?
Leader As Liability. Some have argued that Uber’s CEO was kept on top by an unwritten consensus that winning was more important than work culture. His own management style had little to do with consensus building. But that same unwritten agreement to allow Kalanick to be Kalanick — which is troubling in retrospect — ultimately turned on him. As revelations of harassment and sexism tarnished Uber’s shine, investors naturally got jumpy.
The result was indeed consensus around the fact that Kalanick was a liability that risked a successful IPO. The board weighed its priorities and found that their investment’s safety was far more important, and turned on him. Consensus reached, they acted in a stunning letter that showed a board flexing its legitimate muscle. Exit Kalanick.
Leader As Impediment. Set partisanship aside on this one and just focus on it as a study in the unintended consequences of intractable positions. Among the startling images that emerged from the G20 summit in Hamburg — a meeting dedicated to building consensus among world leaders — are those of the former leader of the free world. POTUS 45 sits by himself, clearly out of sync, a long figure surrounded by leaders networking and discussing — quite possibly, how they’re going to do about his refusal to buy into the global mission.
Seeing is believing: as one commentator noted, the G20 in effect turned into the G19, as leaders reached the consensus that they will work around him — because the global risk is too great to let him stand in the way.
Granted, Trump’s model of leadership is anything but leading teams to balanced agreement. It’s more the atomize, fractionalize, and authorize variety. But we are at a tipping point in terms of a number of things: the climate is changing, forcing us to live and work differently. And we are integrating robots, automation and artificial intelligence into more and more processes. One interesting byproduct of AI is that is does not lie. It does not allow for evasion, story changing, non-participation, or claiming that real is fake – which may soon mean that this kind of leader is rendered even more obsolete. And we don’t need to reach consensus on that.
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