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Martin Luther King, Jr, said, "A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus." I believe that real progress is made only through consensus. Someone who has power can impose his or her will, but only for a short time before things will return as they were-for better or worse. One simple sentence from Robert Greenleaf's The Servant as Leader influenced me profoundly in this regard: "The variable that marks some periods as barren and some as rich in prophetic vision is in the interest, the level of seeking, the responsiveness of the hearers."1 This is the best definition I've ever heard of consensus-and the prophetic voice that molds it.
This is not to imply that those whose opinions are "molded" to conform to a leader's vision are not active participants in it; quite to the contrary. All people are the products of their own history, and each person understands a proposal in this context and in terms of his or her own experiential wisdom. Then they meld their experience with a leader's current counsel to reach an opinion. While we may be talking about leadership here, all effective leadership depends upon an active, informed, and involved "followership" which, of course, is why consensus is crucial to effective leadership. Great results come from synergizing the strength of a working team, energizing their engagement, and continuously responding to their concerns.
If there were to be only one leadership principle, I think it would be this: the only authority deserving one's allegiance is that which is freely and knowingly granted to the leader by the "followers." The educated people in today's workforce do not unthinkingly accept the authority of existing institutions or existing power positions. They seek individuals who have been chosen to be leaders because they are competent and have earned the trust of others.
Perhaps because of the longest recession in history, the persistence of underemployment and the growing income disparity between organizational leaders and their average worker, managers have adopted an intimidating, even coercive attitude, and as a result, "Employee satisfaction is at an all-time low, and a growing number of workers are too apathetic to even head for the exit?"2 And it is not only due to leadership style, but also to ideas of fundamental fairness. Many in leadership today are proving to be greedy rather than inspirational: "According to Business Week, the average CEO of a major corporation made 42 times the average hourly worker's pay in 1980. By 1990 that had almost doubled to 85 times. In 2000, the average CEO salary reached an unbelievable 531 times that of the average hourly worker."3
What a great time to effect consensus and lead a younger generation toward a more effective-and moral-approach to leadership. Nonetheless, I am hopeful for these times, because both Gen X and Gen Y leaders are trying to see clearly the world as it is and are challenging the pervasive injustice with greater force. They are taking sharper issue with the wide disparity between the justice they know is reasonable and possible with available resources and the actual performance of the whole range of institutions that exist today. Consensus is emerging-and it is the perfect time to "mold" it.
Because I believe this, and because I have experienced the effects of different styles of leadership myself, I never stop leading; that is, I never stop seeking to mold consensus.
1. Greenleaf R. The Servant as Leader. Mahwah, NJ: The Paulist Press; 1977:23. [Context Link]
2. DuBois S. Employee satisfaction is at an all-time low. CNN Online http://money.cnn.com/2010/11/05/news/economy. Accessed January 18, 2014. [Context Link]
3. Reh FJ. CEOs are paid too much more than the average worker. http://www.lafpas.info/?tag=overpaid-ceos. Accessed January 18, 2014. [Context Link]
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