Consensus vs. Commands as a Leader

by | Nov 20, 2020

The following is adapted from F*ck the Glass Ceiling: 

As a leader, every time you face a decision, you have two choices: you can come to an agreement with your team about what to do (consensus), or you can dictate what’s to be done (commands).

Like many things in leadership, there is no one right answer as to the best strategy. Sometimes consensus is ideal, and other times commands are not only preferable but necessary.

The best leaders adopt a mix of the two methods, but most of us are predisposed to one strategy over the other. Although there are exceptions, chances are, if you’re a woman, you’re more inclined to prefer consensus, and if you’re a man, you naturally gravitate toward commands.

By understanding your innate tendencies and the pros and cons of each strategy, you can adapt to what will best serve a particular situation and learn how to use both consensus and commands to your advantage.

The Pros and Cons of Consensus

The tendency to seek—and achieve—consensus can be both a strength and weakness. 

With consensus, you create a culture in which everyone’s opinion and input are valued. This can lead to thought-out decisions, fewer unforeseen impacts, and greater buy-in from key players. Another by-product is that people will likely feel safe telling you what is and isn’t working, which is a good thing. You want to have a team that gives you something to push up against, lest you fall from your own gravity.

The dark side of consensus is that it can make your instructions sound like suggestions, and at the extreme, it can turn into an abdication of leadership. As women, we are hardwired to fit in, so we sometimes relinquish our command to a group ideology. This feminine trait of being yielding can make even the most powerful women abdicate power to someone else’s vision to avoid conflict, and it often comes back to bite them in the butt. 

When to Seek Consensus

Whether to seek consensus will depend on each particular situation and the people involved, but there are some general guidelines to consider.

First, it’s vital to achieve alignment when it comes to implementing big-picture plans or policies. Invest time in appealing to your team members’ vision of where they want to be in their future and set your company goals to align with your team’ members’ goals. You rarely hear this counterintuitive policy being implemented in a big corporation. Still, I’ve found it’s more profitable over the long run to convert your people to a shared vision than to coerce them.

For women, in particular, consensus is also a helpful tool when you’re facing the task of implementing an unpopular direction. Note, however, that you don’t need to achieve agreement among all involved parties. When I find myself in these tough situations as a business owner, I tend to pick up the phone and call an advisor to bounce things off of. I know that if I wait until I feel at peace with the choice, the indecision will lead to pressure, self-doubt, and distraction. But by soliciting consensus from an advisor, I can take decisive action with confidence.

The Pros and Cons of Commands

Just like consensus, commands can be either a strength or a weakness.

There’s a reason you’re the leader. You have skills and traits that make you suited to making big, important decisions. As the leader, you have a broader perspective than your team does, and the responsibility for the decision ultimately falls on your shoulders. 

It’s like in major league sports: losses are always the coach’s fault. Getting everyone’s agreement doesn’t mean something is a good decision, and if the team is wrong, it’s your fault. Learning to trust your gut as a leader and issue commands is thus a necessary strength.

There’s also an undercurrent of intensity to commands, and that intensity lights people up, as long as it doesn’t pressure them. In my experience, some people, especially men, simply work better with commands. They like knowing exactly what they’re supposed to do, and having someone capable in charge is comfortable for them.

But use commands too much, and your team won’t be as engaged or inspired. They’ll wait to be told what to do instead of taking ownership of finding solutions to the company’s problems. They may not feel comfortable bringing criticisms to you, and they could even grow resentful, feeling micromanaged.

When to Use Commands

Commands are great for situations in which decisions need to be made quickly. They should also be the default option when consensus isn’t required, either because a decision is small or all parties involved are already on the same page.

When giving commands, they don’t need to be complicated. The shorter, the better. Otherwise, you risk veering into micromanagement. 

As an example, one time in the not too distant past, I received a text from my CEO in which he shared that we were creating a proposal to bid for a lengthy multimillion-dollar job with a prospect we’d been chasing for a long while. I wanted this client and naturally wanted to give my CEO all kinds of ideas on how to pursue it—all of which I had already taught him (in fact, he had surpassed my sales numbers long before that). After pausing to think about it for a moment, I decided to respond with only the simplest of commands, which I knew he would understand was related to our pricing strategy: “Be aggressive,” I said, to which he replied, “Always.”

Find Your Balance

You need to find your own balance between consensus and commands. To help achieve this balance, avoid thinking in terms of right and wrong. Consensus and commands are simply tools. You wouldn’t say a hammer is right and a screwdriver is wrong, so you shouldn’t do it with consensus and commands.

However, you can say that using a hammer on a screw is probably not a good idea. Likewise, you should pay attention to your team and how they respond to these two leadership strategies. Remember that women will likely respond better to consensus, while men often perform better with commands. Choose your tool accordingly, based on the individual and the situation.

For more advice on consensus and commands, you can find F*ck the Glass Ceiling on Amazon.

Mandy Cavanaugh’s passion for leadership, entrepreneurship, and helping people thrive has fueled her roles as CEO, consultant, and facilitator. Her businesses have spanned global lodging logistics, land development, manufacturing, corporate leadership seminars, and turnaround consulting. Mandy succeeds in highly competitive environments by connecting each of her team members to their best future self. She holds various coaching certifications and has conducted seminars on high performance, authentic success, conscious language, imagination activation, conflict resolution, corporate soul retrieval, CEO-ship for start-ups, sales, team building, and wealth wisdom for women.