Monday, March 18, 2013

When Consensus Is Not Enough

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Sometimes I struggle to understand what's missing around the Board table. We've got smart people on the Board, people who are committed to the mission and goals of the association. We've got the right issue on the table--something everyone recognizes as closely tied to our future success and growth. And we've got capable staff, professionals who are ready to tackle whatever difficulties we find on the road ahead.

But still something is missing. We're stuck. Our engine is racing, but our wheels are spinning in the mud and we're not going anywhere. And every time I try to rally everyone around a specific course of action, our foot comes off the accelerator and silence descends.

In situations like this, I have traditionally retreated to the place where consensus provides the most solid footing. There is a desire to move forward, but there are doubts about the course of action or the speed it  should be pursued. So let's restate our objective, reconfirm that all support it, and then list out our possible action steps in ascending order of aggressiveness and commitment. If there isn't consensus for the most aggressive action--Action A--then how about Action B, the one just shy of it? No? Then how about Action C, the next one down the scale? Let's find the one that everyone can agree on that still moves the objective forward in some small way. After all, some progress is better than none at all.

It's a technique that works, and when I've used it I've sometimes been thanked for my leadership. But the last time it happened I added something else that struck me as more aligned with true leadership. It won't work in every circumstance, and it is dependent on certain kinds of action being considered, but it can provide an extra push and challenge others to step farther forward than they might otherwise have.

Review the list of contemplated actions, find the one consensus has settled on, and then look one or two steps forward. The organization is going to do Action C, but what about you? What action are you going to take, irrespective of whether or not others will join you? You may not be in a position to do Action B or Action A, but if you are, you should do it and state publicly that it is your intention to do so.

It does two things: (1) It advances the organization's objective farther than it otherwise would, and (2) It demonstrates to others that such independent actions are possible. We sometimes fall into so much groupthink around a Board table that the power of the individual is forgotten. We should all agree on the objective, but each of us pursuing it according to our own talents and passions can often lead to greater successes that a unified action plan that everyone signs off on.

Give it a try the next time you're in a similar situation. You'll grow by the experience, and you just might inspire someone else to take one of those greater actions with you.

This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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