A Key Component of Leadership: Knowing When to Be Directive vs. Building Consensus

The old fashioned view of leadership is of the strong, decisive leader, throwing out orders to willing underlings, who faithfully execute on behalf of the boss. Although this model of “leadership” fails to leverage the incredibly valuable input and due diligence that comes from a more collaborative and consensus oriented approach, it can actually be the preferred method in some situations.

So, when should you as a leader be more directive?

In my experience, the answer lies in both operational and cultural contexts.

Operationally, it is often preferable to be more directive when you simply don’t have the time for a more consensus oriented approach. In such situations, you need to be fairly confident that your choices/decisions are more likely to be correct than not, but if time is genuinely critical, then making “executive” decisions can be valuable to the organization. A recent example in my own experience was the opportunity to save 75% of the normal acquisition cost of an ERP level software application, but with a very tight deadline to accept the offer or not. I did have colleagues evaluate the application against our current system, but ultimately made the decision myself. In this particular case, I had the advantage that a sister organization was already using the software platform and thus had a real time, real world consult, but it was a good example of an executive decision opportunity regardless. Another operational example might be when you have time, but your colleagues/subordinates do not. In other words, they are already stretched thin and you can do them a favor my making an executive decision that saves them the time and effort of doing so collectively. Similarly, sometimes you’ve dedicated the time to a collaborative approach, but that approach had produced two or three equally viable options. It is better to make an executive decision as a leader than to drag your colleagues through a never ending process trying to get to one team decision.

There are also times when being more directive makes sense for cultural reasons. In organizations where hierarchy and autocracy are the norm, it can be quite disconcerting to employees when they are asked to contribute to consensus or to even make their own decisions. In fact, it can even be unfair in the sense that asking people to do something with which they have no experience can not only create a lot of dissonance, it can result in poor decision making and execution as well. This same dynamic also applies to individuals. Even if an organization broadly speaking is amenable to a collaborative, consensus based approach, not everyone in the organization has the experience or confidence to effectively participate in such a model. In those cases, a good leader should develop that capacity in such a colleague over time, eventually weaning him or her off of dependence on decision making by the boss.

And sometimes, being decisive or “executive” as a leader, particularly in a time of stress or crisis, can be valuable because it can give others in the organization confidence that someone is “in charge” and will get them through whatever the challenge happens to be.

To be clear, generally speaking, leaders will arrive at higher quality decisions and will get higher quality buy-in and execution on those decisions using a more collaborative, consensus based approach. This is true simply because multiple people almost always have better ideas than individuals and teams almost always generate better work than individuals or groups that do not function as teams. However, part of good leadership is knowing when being more directive is preferable.

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