Consensual authority is an age-old idea: if authority is wielded arbitrarily, eventually it fails. People need to consent to authority for it to be legitimate and effective. Otherwise, you end up with autocracy.
Consensual leadership flows naturally from consensual authority: if people don’t consent to your authority, they’ll never consent to be led. Sure, they’ll get things done, but in a limited fashion, not with the ownership and commitment that leads to great results.
As my team leader once told me, “You have to bring people along for the ride.” If people undertand why they need to do something, and why it’s valuable and important, they’ll comply. If they’re told to do something that seems meaningless, arbitrary or political, be prepared for resistance.
True leadership recognizes the sweet spot between bringing people along for the ride and managing discussion. Parents know what it’s like when a four-year-old asks “why?” for the umpteen-millionth time. Recognizing when that’s happening and how to curtail it without a heavy hand is an art which can take many forms:
- Meet individually with the resistant employees to understand what’s really driving their resistance, and mitigate it or negotiate further.
- Focus on getting the immediate task done and revisit concerns in a post-mortem, to see what you can do differently in future.
- Answer “what’s in it for me?” If people have skin in the game, they’re a lot more likely to buy into the work and own it.
Leadership depends on social capital, and you can only go to the bank so many times before your capital runs dry. At that point you’re not a leader: you’re a boss.