Since your primary purpose as a leader is to inspire and motivate a group into sustained action toward a common goal, how do you get people to agree on a common goal? You can certainly impose your will and authority and declare the goals for your organization. Many leaders have done so, with some success. Are you sure you know the right goals? You probably have some really good ideas, but leadership is not a solo performance. You are trying to inspire and motivate others to work hard. By creating an open forum for the exchange of ideas in your organization, you are able to forge agreements and build the relationships that make successful leadership possible.
You need your team to function well and start achieving results now, not in the distant future. For that to happen, you need a collaborative environment that leverages your team’s expertise, insights, and abilities. To foster that environment you must listen more than you speak, and you must avoid making assertions until absolutely necessary. You need your team to think, to aspire, to create, and if you are deliberate about your approach, they will come up with goals and plans better than you could have conceived on your own.
Listening is paramount in unifying the team. Please do not underestimate its value. As a leader, the instant you speak, two-thirds of your team stops thinking. This hefty first cohort will capitulate and begin to interpret or outright solicit your instructions. And of the remaining one-third still thinking, half of them will disagree with you just because you’re the boss. They might not say so out loud, but you can count on them undermining your efforts when you aren’t present. Time and time again over more than two decades, I have seen leaders speak too soon and lose the creativity, enthusiasm, and passion inherent in their team.
In order to illustrate an effective method for reaching consensus, let’s consider three distinct approaches: Moses, Donald Trump, and Socrates.
Moses climbed up a mountain and found God. This model works well for many entrepreneurs who yet to attract investors, employees, or customers. It doesn’t work very often once you have a group of people working with you. After you return from your place of solitude to seek the right strategic plan or product roadmap, you have a lot of explaining to do. And more often than not, you face the same group of curmudgeons that Moses faced when he came down with the tablets only to find that everyone else had decided to follow the golden calf. Be careful when you use this model. Moses had the help of God and had trouble. You will have more trouble than that.
Donald Trump seemed to love to bark “your fired” at the end of every Apprentice episode. This of course is the climax after creating a contest in which teams had to prove their worth to his lordship. A variation of this model happens almost ever day in most organizations. The leader sets up an environment in which ideas must compete for approval, and may the best idea win. Sounds great, but if there is one judge, then then the worst behavior comes out. When Mr. Trump speaks, his lieutenants instantly adjust their world view—intentionally or subconsciously—to more closely align with his. This is a reasonable and rational reaction to try to win approval, but it creates an inherent bias. Instead of having the best idea win based on its merits, the idea or project that wins merely fits the explicit or deduced views of the leader. In effect, the Trump Model is merely a high drama version of dictating the outcome. The Trump Model isn’t always invoked intentionally, but I have seen more than one leader deliberately use it as a club for beating people into submission in a pitched, public battle. It certainly drives consensus for a while, but the backlash afterward is immense. Remember, if you use public bashing to drive agreement, mutiny isn’t far away and it is rarely overt.
Socrates pursued truth through debate, and his approach emphasized the use of challenging questions to pierce into topics to attain useful insights. To lead using the Socrates Model, you must ask questions not only in group meetings, but also as a course of daily practice with the individuals in your organization. You must spend far more time listening than speaking. In group settings, this means calling intentionally on those who are silent to encourage them to express their views. When you do offer an opinion, you should play contrarian and offer opposing assertions deliberately to instigate debate and then harness the group’s discussion to foster a respectful and rational contest among competing assertions. Most importantly, you need to push the team to compromise on opinions, standardize on facts, and push for a decision with a sense of urgency. You only step in to declare a firm opinion and decision if the resolution isn’t possible in the team.
If you like this post, you can read much more about this and related topics in my book Inspiring Excellence available on Amazon and also at Barnes & Noble.