Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Where did leadership go?

The other day I was in a meeting (something I had hope to give up once I retired from the military) discussing ways to improve communication at the college. I will spare you the gory details, suffice to say many suggestions were proposed but nothing was really decided.

I remained silent throughout the meeting more out of curiosity than a lack of input. It was illuminating to watch a group of educated professionals, most having at least a bachelor’s or even master’s degree, shout out ideas only to have them shot down by another colleague. The phenomenon was amazing, without realizing it all members were insuring the status quo remained.

One member of the group congratulated the rest of group for being on the right track but strongly suggested a survey be conducted before we went any further. The group had already agreed on a relatively simple project to demonstrate this wasn’t going to be another committee that was just going to sit around and talk about things. I’ve always felts surveys a fraught with errors. The question may not solicit the information that you think it does. The audience may not understand the purpose of the survey, should they even chose to answer it. The results are always subject to who received the survey, meaning a particular section may have been overlooked. Finally surveys lack the ability for a dialog to be established between the audience and those conducting the survey. I’m not saying surveys are bad just there are some significant limitations.

I started dwelling on this more and it occurred to me that the desire to have a survey before we went any further was a product of the consensus –building mentality that has permeated since the 1980s. Consensus building (also known as collaborative problem solving or collaboration) is a conflict-resolution process used mainly to settle complex, multiparty disputes. On the surface, consensus building seems to be the epitome of inclusiveness allowing all members to have a say in resolving a problem. To some degree, consensus building is an excellent tool so long as the group consists of more or less equals who posses the same understanding of the problem. For instance, using consensus building to improve the process for taking over the phone orders would be an excellent use of this tool. However, using consensus building to write a strategic plan for the organization that reflects ALL of the employees might be overreaching. Not all of the employees have a strategic view of the organization. Yes, the consensus-building gurus will argue that it is exactly these people that need to be included but that ignores the fact that in every organization there are some that resist change. To me, consensus building becomes a watered down substitute for leadership.

Leadership was lacking in our meeting and I don’t mean from the group but rather from the college. No one was given the authority to act on a recommendation therefore the fallback was to rely on consensus built through a survey. Modern Western society has grown extremely thin-skinned. The overarching concern is not to move ahead but to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Look at our political process, no one is question abilities but instead focusing on how they feel left out or injured by the particular individual in question. Sonia Sotomayor may or may not become the next Supreme Court Justice because of how she did not follow consensus building in her decisions.

Officers in the United States military are required throughout the careers to attend professional development courses where we read about great military leaders of the past. Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Shaka Zulu, Grant, Patton, MacArthur…the list is endless of great leaders that did not worry about consensus. They understood what needed to be to achieve the goal and pursued it without hesitation. Think about Shaka Zulu, the great Zulu warrior who lead his nation against the greatest modern army of the time, the British. Consensus building would have deterred them from engaging such a technologically superior foe. Yet he not engaged the British but defeated them with a less technologically advanced force.

Modern Western society is heading to the point of becoming incapable of acting decisively anymore. The Chinese are focusing all of the efforts towards the next super power. They aren’t looking for consensus from their citizens or neighbors, they are going through with their vision. India is also attempting to ascend into the void left by the former cold war but in my opinion finds itself mired in the bureaucratic legacy leftover from British Imperialism. Iran is attempting to regain its former Persian dominance. Venezuela realizes there is an opportunity to unify South and Central American countries and is doing it without regard to how its actions may be viewed by others. I’m not saying their intentions are just, only that they are moving ahead without worrying about surveys or consensus.

I’m reading a book now about General Grant. He took heavy losses during the battles of Shiloh, Cold Harbor and Vicksburg yet he persevered because he knew what it take to win over the Confederacy. By and large, he did not receive favorable reviews even from President Lincoln but in the end he was the only general to be able to execute a successful campaign and ultimately win the war. In the modern age of consensus building have we lost the ability to accept certain consequences in the pursuit of a greater good? In short, where are the leaders?


Quim said...

Reminds me of this piece by Billy Burroughs.

Bob Baylor said...

"representatives of abstract forces who reach power through surrender of self...inept, frightened pilots of controls of a vast machine they cannot understand, calling in experts to tell them which buttons to push."