Skip to content

The leaders and the led

Collaboration and consensus are great in theory but they can quickly give way to chaos
Even when it seems that alignment has been reached, new people will pop out of the woodwork to dissent
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

The language of leadership used to be that of command and control. I’m not sure anyone ever used those exact words – “I will command, my lieutenants will control and the rest of you will salute and obey” – but there was a militaristic shape to the workings of the typical corporation.

On the upside, decisions could be made fast, and implementation begin without demurral. On the downside, those decisions weren’t always sound, since informed but dissenting voices weren’t automatically heard. And, down at the infantry level, who wants to be the passive recipient of orders when what you are trying to do is sell biscuits or business machines, not mount an armed assault behind enemy barbed wire under cover of darkness? It didn’t exactly make for employee satisfaction, not that such things were much measured then.

Today the language of leadership has evolved, and with it the practice, too. What you’ll hear – openly declared, all the way to the top of the leadership chain – are the reassuring themes of ‘collaboration’, ‘consensus’, ‘alignment’, ‘compassion’, with the occasional flourish of ‘we, not I’.

The thinking behind this more nuanced approach to getting things decided and then getting them done is that people are more likely to put their hearts into the implementation of decisions they’ve played some part in. And those decisions can be guided in the first place by the insights of people at all points of the organisation.

If it puts an extra burden on leaders – devouring time, splintering attention, demanding extraordinary capacities for tact – it is loved by the led. They can ‘have their say’. And they do.

This more evolved shape to corporate life is lauded in the considerable body of academic literature on leadership and taught to would-be leaders by business schools and management coaches. Given so many voices in favour of its modernity, its openness, its inclusiveness, it would be churlish to offer up a list of its accompanying faults. Still, that’s exactly what I’ll do.

Our undisciplined discipline

It doesn’t help that marketing is a relatively subjective discipline, guided by principles rather than iron rules, with each decision path open to numerous plausible choices. That’s what makes it exciting, but also what can bog it down in endless debate.

Once you throw even a fashionably positive concept like ‘collaboration’ into the mix, you are risking confusion. Marketing leaders invite global teams to round on a seminal brand decision in either an online or face-to-face setting. Breakout groups collaborate as mini-teams and present back to the floor. The result is invariably a salad of directions, with the resulting discussion doing little to reconcile often wildly divergent points of view.

As one leader put it to me recently after a gruelling session, ‘We are just swirling in circles’. At that point, the options are to seek consensus or make a leadership call.
The problem with the former is that genuine agreement can be tough to reach, and the lukewarm consensus you finally get when everyone feels worn down will reflect what they do not violently disagree with, rather than something into which they will willingly pour their souls.

The problem with making the call is that the leader will need a will of steel and the patience of a saint to make it stick.

We are not aligned

Even when it seems that alignment behind a decision has been reached, new people will pop out of the woodwork to dissent: seniors who weren’t invited to the workshop, researchers who’ll lobby for a different approach based on their narrow consumer viewpoint, creative agencies who will wing in late and be happy to run roughshod over prior thinking, and all those annoying middle managers who like nothing better than to ‘play devil’s advocate’.

I’ve seen leaders attempt to use persuasion at this stage only for it to disintegrate into an endless and fruitless back and forth. And I’ve seen others turn abruptly from empathetic listener to ruthless enforcer, which is a trick you can only pull off if you genuinely don’t care that people are sticking pins into your effigy.

Hence, of all the leaders along the top-floor corporate corridor, it is the chief marketing officer that earns my personal compassion. Some handle it better than others but most struggle to manage the deluge and diversity of opinion that attends even relatively minor forks in the road.

Leadership training is one way to improve things, of course, to give new CMOs the resources and tactics they won’t have learned simply from their prior role as a senior marketer.

But I can’t help feeling that some of that training budget could be deployed further down the corporate hierarchy, to bring a better understanding of the realities of decision making to those who are led.

In the old command-and-control days, to be in receipt of instructions came with low responsibility: you just had to do what was asked. With more active input into decision making, some kind of accountability, some kind of grasp of the best-practice principles of playing a more responsible role should be a minimum requirement.

And the number one principle would be this. When the consultations are over, and your voice has been heard, and a firm decision has finally been made, even if it is one you do not agree with, you should please play your part in ensuring it will be a success.

Only perhaps in stronger language.