Leadership By Committee

Today’s Lesson: Effective leadership does not work if no one is the leader.

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“I will let you know if the team is open to (the idea)…” is the reply I received from a coworker responding to a direct instruction from the owner of the company.

I was perplexed. In more than two decades of leading effective teams, I have never seen a blatant refusal to a reasonable work request from the top of the chain. More importantly, the request was for the team to help with training. I have also never seen an effective team (or team leader) reluctant to help their company move forward.

To be honest, I am still stunned by the response and have not decided on the best way to address it. I have seen this issue before, from a peer being directed by another peer, and that is understandable because neither person has been designated leader (though it is still rare if the request is reasonable).

There is a problem with “Leadership by Committee”, where every team member believes they have an equal vote on any issue and as equally valuable a vote as anyone else, including C-level leaders and ownership. There are 3 reasons why:

1. Like it or not, all employees are not created equal. The fact is, some employees are better qualified to have a decisive vote on some topics. For example, an engineer who has five years of experience with the company likely has more to offer regarding an engineering problem than an intern in the mail room.

Some people are better at strategic thinking. Some people are better at organizing. Some people are better at being proactive.

Leading by committee where everyone’s opinion is valued equally defaults your organizational strength to the strength of your company’s weakest team members. This subverts the company’s success and increases stagnation and roadblocking rather than innovation and change.

This does not mean we have to agree with every decision a leader makes. It means despite our agreement, we are committed to doing our best to make the leader’s decision work (or we are willing to take a very big, career-level risk to be proven right or wrong).

2. Leaders often have information we may not. I do not know why the President of the United States makes dumb decisions. I assume if a solution seems clear to me (a layperson), then the leader of the free world and all his or her advisers have probably seen or heard a variation of my argument already. The difference might be the President has information I am not privy to, and probably for good reason. I am not qualified to run the nation, but imagine if both the President and I had equal say in the matter!

By the same token, when my boss provides direction that seems counter-intuitive to our goals and he or she can not give me a good explanation why, I must take her at her word.

Granted, sometimes it is simply a bad decision on the leader’s part, but more often it is because they have a crucial piece of information they can not share at the time.

We see this in sports coaching, too. If a coach knows a player favors her left side, and he suspects her opponent is aware of this, he might tell the player to lead with her right side. If she asks why, the coach might only tell her to trust him (because he does not want her wasting energy concentrating on thinking through each play, wasting precious seconds). He just wants her to lead from her right, for now. He can explain the rest later if there is time.

3. The person at the top is there for a reason. Leadership by committee also does not work because not everyone is a leader (or there would be no leaders). If I was as good at creating and running a multi-million dollar organization as the owner of the company I work for, then I would be doing that instead. I would be his competitor instead of his employee.

This does not reflect on my value as a human being in society, only my skill sets within the organization. I might not excel in financial acumen and business development but I may make up for it with aptitudes in communication, change management, and training–great skills to have, but probably not for making decisions affecting the company’s revenue or payroll.

When we deny proper respect and deference to leadership, we are giving in to our own egotism (note: not egoism…which is different). We are assuming skills, experience, and organizational wisdom beyond our ability or role.

 

Probably the best pop-culture example of leadership I can think of is Captain Picard in the 90’s television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Captain Picard clearly valued each of his team members, but he valued them differently, depending on their skills and contributions. Clearly, his second-in-command (whom he even called his “Number One”) had a stronger vote than other team members, except when the problem fell under somebody else’s purview. For example, he would not accept Number One’s opinion over the ship’s Doctor’s if there was a medical situation.

As often as possible, the captain assembled his core team and listened to their input, but the final leadership decision always rested with him.

Can you imagine if Captain Picard or his Number One issued a directive to fire on an enemy and was met with, “Well, I’ll check with the laser-firing team and see if they are on board with that idea and get back to you…”? The show would have become a sit-com.

 

Incidentally, I decided to give the employee the benefit of the doubt. I will assume the communication was not intended to be dismissive of authority but rather respectful of the team’s time and needs.

As long as the goal is met, I can live with a miscommunication (even if the other person thinks it was a committee vote).

 

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Michael Salamey

People are made of many things, but only a few things define a person. For me, those things are Philosophy, Leadership, and Health. I help independently owned and ethically run businesses break through communication obstacles and challenge conventional thinking. Sometimes that means delivering insightful marketing content; sometimes it means having tough but compassionate conversations. All the time, it means communicating and building relationships with honesty and integrity. I am a vegan, an individualist, and occasionally a man willing to risk everything to reach a goal. I am known for being uncompromising in my values, and for being someone who dares to own his own life.