Friday, January 16, 2009


There are a great many theories of leadership -- from highly centralized, top-down (almost militaristic) models to more decentralized, bottom-up, enabling (almost group-transforming) models. Leaders who get others to do what they want by using the power to threaten, punish, or reward can, in fact, get certain things done. As we flatten organizations, however, eliminating middle management ranks and emphasizing the need for flexibility, collaboration and individual initiative, leaders who motivate or manage by exercising power are becoming obsolete.  Quite a few organizations, companies and groups now put a premium on finding leaders who can motivate or catalyze networks of employees, volunteers, supporters, investors and others to take responsibility for defining and achieving the tasks that need to be addressed.

I think of these people as facilitative leaders -- men and women who help teams and networks of employees and partners set ambitious but workable agendas, problem-solve in creative ways, and support each other and the organization as a whole in the face of unexpected opportunities and obstacles. 

From what we have learned in the consensus building and organizational development fields, I see three behaviors or "moves"  that define facilitative leadership.  First, a facilitative leader is someone who consults with the people s/he is leading to define the process by which the group will do its work or make decisions.  Second, a facilitative leader is someone who will find ways to enhance the capacity of the individuals and groups involved so they have both the information and the confidence they need to make informed decisions or recommendations.  Third, a facilitative leader is someone who commits to decision-making by consensus. That is, a facilitative leader won't impose a decision or settle for a majority vote; rather, they will keep working until the group comes as close as possible to unanimity on how to proceed. [See Susskind et. al, The Consensus Building Handbook (Sage, 1999) for more detail.]

Lots of leaders (including many of those who operate in a top-down fashion) claim that they want to consult or involve others in choices that must be made.  But they don't mean it.  What they really want is confirmation for what they have already decided or the veneer of democratic decision-making.  A facilitative leader, on the other hand, makes explicit what the process will be by which the input of all relevant parties will be tapped, presents that process for review and revision by the people who will be involved, and makes sure that the process is followed.  Even facilitative leaders may have to impose time constraints or other limitations. But when they do, they make these constraints explicit along with the reasons why they can't be ignored.

Capacity building is the second key task of facilitative leadership.  It is not enough to invite people to have a say.  A facilitative leader must give those being consulted access to the technical information or independent professional advice they need to present their concerns or suggestions in meaningful ways.  They also need to hear that their informal ("local") knowledge is important and will be incorporated into whatever decisions must be made.

A commitment to consensus building often means involving a professional neutral to provide facilitation or mediation services.  A facilitative leader knows that it is not a sign of weakness to ask for such help -- especially when the leader wants to have a say on particular issues being discussed, and thus isn't in a position to be entirely even-handed in engaging others in collaborative decision-making.  Consensus building also requires putting the right kinds of questions to the group. For example, asking for proposals that will solve a problem in a way that meets the interests of everyone involved rather than asking for each persons favorite solution.   It also means insisting that the group shouldn't seek compromise; instead, it should aim to maximize the creation of value -- coming as close as possible to meeting the concerns of everyone involved. 

It's hard to be a facilitative leader; it is certainly more of a challenge than being a traditional visionary leader who is supposed to figure out what's best and knock heads until everyone does what they are told. 


Post a Comment