Is Consensus Overrated? (Spoiler Alert: Yes!)

“Good leaders always achieve consensus.”  I still hear this occasionally in some circles. 

Not to sound like a consensus-basher, but many good leaders throughout history (including today) are more focused on clarity, communication and implementing reasonable plans well-devised than seeing complete agreement among their leadership team.

Jesus, Saint Paul and Pope Francis

Ask a friend for an example of Jesus achieving consensus—or even pursuing it.  Your friend, and you, will be hard-pressed to point out a Gospel passage where Jesus says in effect “Now that we’re in complete agreement on this, let’s get moving!”

Then there’s Saint Paul.  The man who established church after church, by God’s grace, several of which endure to this day, was certainly an effective leader.  But where in any of his letters did he work toward achieving consensus on a human idea?  In discerning God’s will, Saint Paul definitely wanted folks to be of one accord.  But the Apostle to the Gentiles is comfortable making decisions that might require fellow leaders to disagree and commit.  (More about “disagree and commit” later.)

Finally, Pope Francis as well as other pontiffs often shares thoughts that are meant to guide and “confirm the brethren” regardless of whether each bishop would articulate the same suggestion on discipline and practice in exactly the same way.  Without going off on theological tangents the point is made:  Good leaders don’t always achieve consensus. 

Disagree and Commit

Consensus can be a blessing, especially if it comes quickly.  In his book The Advantage (p.48) Patrick Lencioni shares the disagree-and-commit philosophy.  “When leadership teams wait for consensus before taking action, “ Lencioni writes “they usually end up with decisions that are made too late and are mildly disagreeable to everyone.  This is a recipe for mediocrity and frustration.”  Conversely, when adults have an opportunity to weigh in and engage in honest discussion on a matter requiring a decision, they not only realize that reasonable people often disagree on various courses of action, they can also commit to a decision that’s not their preference but will help the organization make progress in an important area.

Information, Consultation, Implementation

Leaders need relevant, accurate data.  They need advice from folks with various types of expertise.  And when decisions come, whether by consensus or by disagree-and-commit, they need leadership teams to focus on results that benefit the organization’s overall mission—holding each other accountable for moving the ball forward.  I hope that every person reading this agrees with me 100%; or if not, that you’ll disagree and commit to making your leadership team more organizationally healthy thereby maximizing its apostolic impact.