Consensus: Don't Bother

Is your decision making style to try to please everyone?


Leadership isn't a popularity contest. Former Navy SEAL Commander Rorke Denver argues that if your priority is trying to reach consensus, you may be setting yourself up for organizational failure. While leaders don't need to look for ways to disappoint others, they certainly can't shy away from making the tough calls.

Watch and listen as Rorke walks you through experiences from his own leadership journey and how the ability to make the tough decisions creates team engagement and drives organizational success.

There's a toxic misnomer that leadership is a popularity contest, that to be liked, and more importantly, never disliked is a goal. I've worked for leaders who believed everyone is supposed to get along, that harmony and common experience are achievable, and required as metrics for their success. Let me tell you what I've learned. If you want to guarantee failure in an organization, try to achieve consensus in all you do.

Margaret Thatcher said this of 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'?"

Now the Iron Lady knew a thing or two about leadership. She knew that her troops and country required leadership from the front. She knew it was her job to work for what the people needed, not what they wanted. To do that, a leader needs to be able to make a clear decision.

I worked for several admirals in my time in the Navy. One was an interesting case study,. He was a gifted speaker, had a great sense of humor, and he knew how to carry himself and look every bit the part of a senior leader. But in my experience observing him in a nauseating number of meetings, he had a genuine fatal flaw. He always wanted to achieve consensus. I would say that he held at least two major staff meetings a week, often more. Each of these meetings, all of the heads of state were present. Each senior leader would be vying for the admiral's time, and more importantly, his support for a competing requirement.

These were intelligent, driven, competitive, and well-prepared men, ready to argue their point to get funds, guidance on some ambiguous issue, or most often the admiral's approval for a program or issue. These men would fight tooth and nail, and with such passion it was a pleasure to be a junior officer in the room watching the battle.

When the dust settled, the admiral would take a moment to think, and then would explain, often in magical twists of language and rhetoric, his decision on the issue at hand. Then he would smile, stand up, and leave the room. What I soon realized after he rendered his decision was that every single combatant in the room would depart believing they had gotten what they came for. The admiral would never crush anyone's dreams. He would never disappoint or pick a winner or loser.

Now those can be harsh terms, but the fact is that is the way the world works. If four men were at the table, each with competing requirements on the same issue, and they all left thinking that they got what they came for, then nobody got what they came for. It was the most amazing ability to make no decision, time and time again, that I had ever seen.

This is not what leaders are paid for. You have to take a position. You don't look for ways to disappoint, and if you can make the pipe bigger for everyone, all the power to you. But when the rubber meets the road, a leader needs to choose. He or she needs to stand for something and make a call. It is strength and conviction, not weakness and indecision, that is admired. Your troops might not be happy about your decision, but I flat out know they'll respect a leader who will make a decisive call.

Rorke Denver

Commander Rorke T. Denver, founder of Ever Onward, has run every phase of training for the U.S. Navy SEALs and led special-forces missions in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and other international hot spots. He starred in the ...

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