Facilitation is Not Leadership. Learn to Act.
Challenging times call for clear thinking, bold action, and a steady hand on the wheel. The best leaders are conscious of these requirements and mindful in their practice of them. They conduct swift but thorough due diligence, think through implications of their decisions, then act. They do not equivocate, apologize, or back track, and strong opposition does not intimidate them. In fact, they appreciate healthy argument as a means of clarifying everyone’s thinking.
Another approach to decision making entails the building of consensus among groups of stakeholders. This is facilitation, a process that is sometimes vitally important to a productive outcome. It requires special skill in drawing out differing viewpoints, finding common ground, and creating plans that are amenable to all.
This approach can be effective in relatively harmonious situations and in times of relative calm. However, when tensions run high and quick action is needed, this approach almost always fails.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, facilitation of a group process takes a good deal of time, especially if group members do not know one another well.
Second, finding common ground within a diverse group requires exceptional skill on the part of the facilitator. All members need to feel appreciated, even valued, for their contribution before they will agree to support any negotiated consensus. Even after agreeing, some wander off the ranch.
Third, tension and pressure to act often preclude deep thinking and mature discussion. Lines between conflicting factors get drawn, bad behaviors surface, and situations too often become deeply personal. Good decisions are rare.
After decades of team-based work, starting with the earliest quality circles in the 1960s, we have institutionalized our belief that collaboration is the way to success. But successful collaboration requires strong people with clear and certain viewpoints, a goal to guide them, a commitment to give their best effort, and a leader.
There is a time and place for facilitation. Its purpose is to draw out the accumulated knowledge of a group and decide, collectively, how best to use it. But it is too passive a method when urgent action is required. When the house is on fire, parents don’t gather the kids to discuss which exit they might prefer.
The best leaders recognize that tough times call for definitive principle and courageous action. They make sure to understand the parameters of a problem, the availability of resources, and the talent necessary for success. They trust others to challenge their assumptions, offer alternative solutions, and demand proof, all at a pace that meets a problem head on.
Facilitation is not leadership. Mistaking it as such sows the seeds of despair.