Wise Consultation by Leaders

(From Human Development, 14,4; Winter, 1993, 7-10)

First, a true story: It was February and the spirits of the seminary faculty were flagging. The president decided they needed a lift. So he stopped by the office of each professor and asked, "What do you think of having a nice dinner for all the faculty on Washington's birthday?" Each one indicated that it was a good idea. When the day drew near, however, the president's secretary informed him that only six out of twenty-two professors had committed themselves to attend. The president was furious. "I consulted the faculty," he declared, "and they all approved of the idea!"

"Consulted the faculty" --- a simple enough phrase, on the face of it. At the time I, one of the faculty members in the scenario, would probably have accepted the president's view of the situation and felt that his anger was justified. Surely, after reading about it, many leaders are reliving similar moments' of exasperation. Why aren't people more responsible?

Today, after observing many different processes in a variety of organizations over the years, all of them called consultation, I am no longer so accepting of the president's point of view. The single term consultation, it turns out, can cover several quite different phenomena. Failure to be clear about the differences can have serious implications for the relationship between a leader and the body he or she is called to lead. The reflections that follow apply equally to individual leaders and to leadership bodies. The focus is not on who plays the role of leader but on how the role is played.

Before we consider the two major models of consultation, it might help to note that there is one organizational situation we will not examine: that in which the model of consultative leadership itself is doomed to be ineffective because the members feel they should be empowered to participate in the actual closure of the decision and are willing to invest the time and energies required to achieve a participatory consensus as a body. If the body has a high investment in that level of ownership, any model in which they are merely consulted will cause disaffection and stress, even if the content of the leader's decision represents what the body of members would have decided anyway. This article focuses on systems in which the members broadly accept as appropriate and normative for their group a governance model that calls on leaders to consult members and then, when the consultation is completed, to bear the final responsibility for the choices made. Our concern is the consultation methods employed, not the suitability of the group's governance model in general.

Let's return to our disgruntled president. What did he do? And, more important, what are the ramifications of his approach? A closer look at the situation reveals two features that deserve analysis. The first is his way of initiating the exchange with each faculty member; the second and more significant is the structuring of the interaction.


The president began the process with the presentation of a concrete proposal to each member: "What do you think of having a nice dinner for all the faculty?" This approach puts the member at a power disadvantage, even if the personal relationship between the leader and the member is quite mature and healthy. It focuses the member's attention on a proposed solution that apparently enjoys some degree of ownership by the leader already, even before the member speaks. The interchange has been initiated in such a way that the member is implicitly expected to fit into the leader's framework, even if he or she decides to reject the leader's idea. It takes an extra investment of self for the member to initiate the proposal of an alternative resolution ("No, I don't think a dinner would work, but a more casual outing in the country could be very refreshing"). More likely, the member will go along with the trusted leader by assenting to the idea, even if he or she feels little real commitment to the proposal. And, as in our story, there is a distinct probability that the member won't follow through by making the actual time investment to carry out the proposal.

In initiating the consultation, the president would have been better advised to ask the faculty member how he or she would propose to alleviate the faculty's depression ("The faculty are really dragging; do you have any ideas on how we might lift people's spirits a bit before the Easter break?"). Consultation is more productive when it begins with an open question rather than a proposed answer. This empowers the member to be a proposer rather than merely a responder. Implicitly, it affirms the creative potential of the member. And it creates a much greater likelihood that something genuinely new, not considered by the leader, might be injected into the deliberation. Of course, it is quite possible that that is precisely what the leader is unconsciously trying to prevent by occupying the open ground with his or her own proposal first. Human motivation is complex; leaders need to ask themselves whether their real agenda is to create member empowerment or to maintain control.


More significant than the process of introducing the exploration, however, is the model by which consultation of the whole membership is structured. In other words, even if the leader starts with an open-ended question, there are still at least two alternative models of consultation to be reflected on.

The president in our story canvassed the faculty by talking with each member individually. This, incidentally, is the approach used by opinion pollsters: isolated individuals (who may or may not have any personal stake in the question put to them) are asked to register a response to the poll taker's question. The numbers are tallied up, and then we are told that "the consensus among people between 45 and 60 is that . . ." Yet in this model none of the members is related to any other participant in the consultation process. The call for input goes from the leader to each individual member, and the response returns to the leader. In effect, there is a series of dyadic interactions, "uncontaminated" by the ideas or feelings of anyone else in the system. The individual members may indeed talk among themselves afterward (and they surely will if the matter is important enough), but that conversation remains on the informal level organizationally; it has no formal or public legitimacy, as powerful as it may be in fact.

In this model the members are treated as atoms, as isolated quantities. We might even say that as far as this particular exercise is concerned, there is a sense in which their co-members have no genuine existence except in the mind of the leader, who is synthesizing (or, worse, merely tallying) the responses. There really is no social body in play; all transactions are individual-to-individual.

One effect of the one-to-one, leader-to-individual member model of consultation is that the responses will probably be focused almost exclusively on the question asked. The atomized individual may indeed give a genuine indication of his or her position on the question asked, but there is a low probability that he or she will initiate a serious exploration of other alternatives. Even more unlikely is a challenge to the leader's sense of the situation ("Do you think maybe you're over-reading the signals of ordinary tiredness?").

Another effect of the one-to-one model is that the individual member does not benefit from the exchange and is not challenged by hearing other members' ideas on the subject. We will return to this point as we consider another model for structuring consultation.


In the leader-group approach, the leader, instead of asking discrete individuals their views on a subject and then processing all the separate returns within his or her own mind, sets in motion an entirely different process and releases totally different energies by consulting the group as a group. In this model the members interact not merely with the leader but also with each other. They perform precisely as members, as organs of a body. Referring back to our story, one could say with some truth that the president never consulted the faculty; he consulted a collection of individuals. The whole, it has been said, is neither more than the parts nor less; it is a reality of a different order.

When people within the group engage one another, member-to-member, regarding matters of common concern, other significant things happen. Each of the members approaches the issue from a different personal base of experience, and thus brings different assumptions and different affective valences to the discussion.

The first major effect of the exchange of multiple questions, assumptions, feelings, interpretations, perspectives, and opinions --- including ignorance or misinterpretations of facts, projections, unwarranted but real fears and anxieties, Utopian expectations, and just plain stubbornness --- is that participants in the exchange experience themselves as members. Their interweaving of psychic "stuff" reconstitutes the body, the family --- who the members are, not merely what positions they hold.

The second result may be confusion or even chaos. Because people are coming from so many different places in the journey of the organization, what started out as a clear, perhaps even simple question can become an issue that is much less manageable --- but potentially more promising if it can be brought to resolution. Of course, the lack of a clear answer while that is happening can be painful for the members, and absolutely unnerving for a leader with a low tolerance for ambiguity.


All of this might help us be clearer about what we can and should be looking for in any consultative process. Presumably, the purpose of the whole exercise is to reach a solid foundation for human decision and action. Consultation is not an exercise in scientific abstraction, in which statistical reliability is the criterion for success. Rather, it is a search for wisdom, for the course of action that has the best hope of being a wise one. It is an effort of human beings, not calculators. Which means that the participants should consciously include all the rationality that can be brought to bear on the question, along with all the pre-rational psychic "stuff" mentioned earlier. The foundations for human commitment to action are deeply mysterious at best; to rely solely on conscious, cognitive clarity is surely a formula for dissociation.

This means that the proper function of consultation is to protect the leader from his or her shadow, from all those backstage powers and impulses that maneuver the scenery on the stages of our conscious minds, maintaining our illusions of objectivity.

The foundation for consulting the group as a group is the hope that the collective effort to communicate about the situation will challenge the individual shadows of everyone engaged in the search, not just those of the leader. All will hear things they would rather not hear and would be inclined to repress or deny; all will be confronted with affects they harbor but have never accepted in themselves. This is not to say we should hope to bring all that is in shadow into the light; that would be Utopian, not incamational, spirituality. We are not expected to be divine; becoming fully human is work enough.


Is participatory consultation a prescription for mediocrity, for following the lowest common denominator? Not necessarily --- although it would be dishonest to pretend that it always avoids such pitfalls. Nevertheless, we should not conclude that the very concept is flawed and should be dropped. We might look to improve the specific methods used in conducting the inquiry, a subject that would take us far beyond the range of these reflections.

We might also remind ourselves of the role and burden of leadership, which frequently begin when the consultation concludes. Consultation, after all, ends by informing leaders what it is that members are prepared, without further stretching, to support. The genuine leadership questions come into focus only at that point: Now that I know with some reasonable degree of reliability just what directions the group members are ready to support at this time, how will I propose to stretch them beyond their present comfort zone, to ventures (or adventures) they would not otherwise be inclined to support wholeheartedly right now? What ideas should I throw out to get them ready for further changes down the road? What ideas would be too risky to share because they would immobilize the members with fear? What innovations would be so small that they would be received with a shrug?

This is the moment for leaders to spend some of the credit they have gained by respecting the dignity of the members and structuring a serious effort at consultation. If the members have experienced the process as authentic, they will in turn be ready to let their leader lead. In fact, a profound instinct will make them feel genuine pride that their leader is putting a challenge before them and inviting them to choose responsibility for an even more daring future.

In the end, it's all about effecting the growth of human trust. I hope these reflections have shed some light on that goal, which all humans yearn to achieve. Trust building happens in a dialectical movement between a leader and the body being asked to follow. Members have the potential to offer great amounts of human trust --- but only to leaders who have first taken the risk to trust the wisdom of the body. Power, like all manifestations' of life, is gained only by first giving it away.