Leadership by consensus is often no leadership at all. 

If you hand the same project with the same materials to a hundred children – or adults for that matter – you will get a hundred different results. Each one will be unique. OK, maybe a few cheats will copy the others, and maybe by some osmosis two of them might be very similar, but the point is that every person’s solution to the same problem differs vastly from the next person’s. If you just look at how uniquely every person’s life unfolds, there is further evidence for this. Each person is given the same project: make a success of your life; and the same materials: a brain, two hands, eyes, etc; and yet every person’s life takes a vastly different course.

Leaders who try to please everybody, when everybody’s solution is always going to be so vastly different, will find themselves stuck and end up avoiding the decisions that need to be made. Since decisions open the channels for energy to flow, for things to happen, the team will quickly stagnate.

Fearful leaders arise out of a culture of taking things personally

One of the most common drivers for this is fear, although often this fear is hidden behind euphemisms like consultation, consensus, even ubuntu. What is this leader afraid of? Of the consequences of people taking things personally. If I don’t take his suggestion into account he’ll be upset with me, or she might talk badly about me and turn the team against me; they might become uncooperative; or, quite simply, they might not like me.

To the extent that there is a culture of taking things personally, there will be fearful leaders and a tendency to avoid or delay making decisions. Strong leaders can rise above this. However, if they can’t shift the rest of the team to do the same, they can end up getting their heads chopped off.

The most effective organisations are those where decisions of leaders are readily accepted and supported, while rejected suggestions are not taken personally. There is usually a commitment to excellence in those organisations and everybody buys into that. The movies The Devil Wears Prada and The September Issue provide good examples of this. They are both about Vogue magazine and its editor Anna Wintour, who is uncompromising in her dedication to excellence. Whether she’s right or wrong in her decisions, the team respects them and gets on with it. Those who can’t take it, leave. There is no compromise on quality and the results show in the product: it is the best magazine in the world, by far.

Identifying a culture of taking things personally, and transforming that into a culture of excellence, is the task of any worthwhile executive coach.