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Words have consequences in job interviews.

Over my 18 years in executive search, I have heard hundreds of candidates describe their leadership style as “consensual — I build consensus.”   When a candidate gave that as an answer to a query regarding their leadership style in my earliest years, I would nod my head, as if I really understood what that term meant. 

I learned my lesson, fortunately not at the client's expense.  Now, I ask, “What does that really mean?”  The truth is, candidates use that line because it sounds so collegial, so non confrontational.  Considered in rapid time, consensual leadership sounds like the first cousin of a “collaborative” style.  They are not.   

Adam Bryant’s Corner Office column in Sunday’s New York Times provided an excellent case in point.

Consensus “…sounds wonderful but it was a very, very difficult way to manage anything, because to convince everybody to do one particular thing, especially if it was hard, [is] almost mpossible,” said Geoffrey Canada, President and CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a non-profit which has offered education, social-service and community building programs to children and families since 1970.  “Convincing people to give your way a try will work if you neutralize — and sometimes you have to cauterize — the ones who are really against change.  They’re the kind of person who, if you tell them it is raining outside, they will fight you tooth and nail.  You take them outside in the rain and they will say, ‘But it wasn’t raining five seconds ago’.  I spent a year a year trying to convince those people to change and give me a chance.  Then I realized it was a wasted year.”

Consensus leadership is a sure way for healthcare executives to get bogged down at a critical time in our history.  The challenges in healthcare are significant.  Most executives, employees and physicians inellectually comprehend what will transpire over the next five to 10 years as the result of out-of-control deficits and the national debt and Medicare’s central role in fueling the fire.  Major cuts will occur.  Healthcare delivery as we know it today will forever change.  Getting people to actually undertake the necessary change is another matter.  We might be able to collaborate on finding alternative strategies, but we will NEVER experience a time when everyone agrees to this kind of gut-wrenching change.  Those who fear and resist change may nod their heads in agreement — giving the consensual leader a false sense of hope or security — but when the first sting of change pain occurs, they will dig in their heals and resist mightily. 

So, as a healthcare leader, if you think a consensus building leadership styler is the answer, that it will help you through these tough times, perhaps you might want to rethink that proposition, because many of our leadership styles and techniques that worked 20 years ago, will not work in this new healthcare economy.


© 2011 John Gregory Self

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