The Truth About How Consensus Kills Courage

 

The truth about how consensus kills courage

One of the biggest problems in the church (and many other organizations) is our drive to obtain consensus before acting.

Consensus kills courage.

Very few good, innovative ideas gain consensus before a leader acts.

In fact, most great new ideas worth anything are inherently divisive.

Think about how different history would be if great leaders needed consensus from the people they led:

Moses would have left the Israelites in slavery

Jesus would have listened to the disciples and talked himself out of the cross

Peter would never have given up his kosher diet

The apostle Paul would have gone back to Phariseeism

Martin Luther would have waited for his bishop to approve

Martin Luther King would have delayed until legislators were sympathetic

Any time you’re seeking to bring about radical change, most people will think it’s a terrible idea.

And sometimes, they’re right.

But once in a while, they’re not. You should live for the ‘once in a while’ idea. They are the kind of ideas that change everything.

When it comes to courageous change, here are four things that are true:

Committees kill vision

Individuals are almost always more courageous than teams

The more people you seek to please up front, the less inspiring your idea will become

Leaders don’t always walk alone, but sometimes they have to start alone.

If you’ve got a really great idea, refuse to allow the ubiquitous love of consensus to kill your dream.

Here are some ideas to get you started if you’re handling a divisive, innovative idea:

Don’t ask the team for agreement, just get permission

Listen to people, but follow your gut

If you’re wrong, take full responsibility

When it emerges that you were right, be humble and invite others on the journey

I realize these ideas are controversial. I realize acting on them might get you fired.

But would you rather look back in 30 years with regret at how many great ideas were anesthetized by a visionless committee or group?

or

Would you rather look back and be satisfied that you did everything in your power to bring about change, even if it got you in trouble?

Of course, the third option might be that you successfully ushered in the change that changed everything. But I’d even settle for trying, failing and getting in trouble.

This is not an excuse to be a jerk, but is permission to be courageous.

And if you are looking for courage, few things will kill it faster than a drive for consensus.

The best idea only looks like the best idea after it wins.

So today, don’t look for consensus. Instead, be courageous.

What are your frustrations about consensus?

(P.S. If you want to read more about leading change, I wrote all about leading change without losing it in my new book, and also in this blog series about change that starts here.)

Did you find this post helpful?

Did you like this post? Never miss another one again by subscribing!
 
  • Daniel

    Carey Nieuwhof, I feel a need to let you know that you are the first Christian that has ever caught my attention in a positive manner since I stopped being one myself.

    Earlier in life, I was part of an organization called “Jesus Revolution” in Norway. The head of that organization is a highly esteemed preacher by every Christian I can think of.

    I had an awful experience with the man: He was “counseling” me and my girlfriend in private (on my initiative) regarding the issues of sex before marriage. He said things to me that made me want to abolish Christianity.

    What is your take on that? Should I accept following rules that is in direct conflict with common sense and hearts desires? Should I bow down before a God that is a maniac in his reasoning? A God that I fear and loathe, but do as commanded in fear of judgement?

    Or should I search for a God that is CARING and LOVING and SANE in every way (not someone who claims to be the definition of good, but in reality is a sadist who creates life only to flip a coin on whoever will go to Heaven or Hell).

    Instead of confronting that preacher with what I felt about that insane conversation, I have done my best not to believe there is a God. Today I call myself an Agnostic. There you go, I’m a walking result of what could happen if you are too much of a coward to speak against the common opinion).

    Brilliant article, btw. Got me thinking.

  • Tara Diekmann

    Seriously this is a great article. I am facing this right now. It is going to cost us for being courageous, but like you said

    “would you rather look back in 30 years with regret at how many great ideas were anesthetized by a visionless committee or group? Or Would you rather look back and be
    satisfied that you did everything in your power to bring about change,
    even if it got you in trouble?” I have to say I rather stand like Luther to bring change even if I am fired. We will just go and plant and start if off healthy and right.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kevin.spear Kevin Spear

    Very good points. As someone who has worked in a creative department, I have seen how difficult it can be to walk that thin line between getting permission for your idea and seeing it changed by consensus.

    Whether you’re at church or in a creative department, you need to have the courage to sell your idea. It may involve compromise when they go through a committee. The danger comes when a committee waters down an idea. Design by committee inspires only mediocrity.

    In order to sell your idea, you have to do the work to ensure this idea is worth selling. This can take the form of spiritual work, seeking God for guidance. It can also take the form of doing your homework and having an answer for objections.

    You can fight for your idea without fighting individuals or your committee. It takes some finesse and salesmanship, but it can be done. And if this idea came from divine inspiration, it is worth fighting for.

    • cnieuwhof

      Kevin…that must be so true of creatives. Revolution rarely happens because ‘everybody saw it’. Thank you for this.

  • Matt Brough

    This is an interesting post, Carey. I think a lot of this depends on the leadership team that you’ve got or that you’ve developed. Our elders often operate on consensus (as in, we tend not to vote, but simply agree), but the trust level amongst us is very high. This trust has been built over time so that if I came with an idea, and they said no, I would respect that and actually let it go. But, I’m also confident that our elders would never flat out say no to anything without really considering it and praying about it.

    I think Church people can mistake consensus around ideas or initiatives for Christian unity. These are not the same thing. Unity is really important – but unity doesn’t mean agreeing on every issue or idea. It does mean not working against an initiative or idea even if you think its a bad idea.

    • cnieuwhof

      Matt…such a great point about the difference between unity and consensus. Thank you!

  • Charles Hodsdon

    This post has been a great conversation started for me. Thanks for sharing it! I spent a few days picking peoples brains and got, as you did here, an extremely wide variety of responses. (Not to mention tons of verses from Proverbs about how success comes with many counselors) I think your post is very similar to a chapter from Han’s Finzel’s “Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make” Specifically the chapter on making room for ‘Mavericks’. In my opinion the key is coming up with a filter (as you describe in your recent book) for evaluating criticism, and for evaluating whether or not an idea is courageous or just an ego trip.

    A few thoughts on what that filter might look like:
    1. Is it Biblical (if not, don’t waste your time)
    2. Is it in keeping with the mission of our organization (if you are running a
    nursing home ministry and someone wants to allocate resources to open a
    preschool, they may have come to the wrong place.)
    3. Does the person presenting the idea demonstrate the following:
    a. Experience (Maybe not the 5 decades of experience you have, but have
    they done some time in the trenches? after all you can’t lead until
    you’ve learned to follow.)
    b. Research (if someone is reading everything they can get their hands on about the topic, they are far more credible than people who won’t show up to a meeting or read a book)
    c. Passion (Please don’t confuse passion with how loudly they speak!
    instead ask yourself, “Do they live the ministry they want your organization to be a part of?” )
    d. A willingness to seek and take advice (if they won’t listen to the Proverbs and won’t take advice, they they can’t be trusted with leadership. True leadership requires a submissive, servant’s heart)
    e. Willingness to work within the current system. (or do they refuse to volunteer until they get their way?)

    I realize that much of this is stuff you’ve already shared on your blog or in your book, but I What would you add or subtract from the list?

    • cnieuwhof

      Charles…those are thoughtful and helpful ‘filters’, and you’re right, I do love filters (talk about them in my book and here on the blog). I wouldn’t necessarily add or subtract anything (good list), but I would just say this: sometimes you do just need to act. To follow a gut, follow a dream, follow a prompting. You would want permission, but if you waited for buy in, you might be waiting until after your retirement party. Too many churches are atrophied in too many ways. We need more courage. More initiative. More faith.

      • Charles Hodsdon

        Thanks, As I am a volunteer not a senior leader, I like the idea of permission instead of buy in.

        • cnieuwhof

          Charles. I LOVE that you are a volunteer and this engaged. Honestly…wonderful!

  • Danny

    I must say, In large part I have to agree with Eddy. I’ve seen too many leaders go out in courage, but are mostly simply trying to force their own image on everyone else. The examples you gave are also very flawed. All but two received direct revelation from God himself, and the others were responses to the worst and most large scale forms of abuse. Sadly, I have met very few leaders who would not use this advice to simply stand above everyone else and angle things for their own goals. We need more accountability than this. The solution is not to go around the team, it’s to have the right team. I believe in first among equals to some degree, but properly tempered.

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Hi Danny…thanks for your comments. I also appreciate your tone. I agree that the solution is not to go around the team or to usurp authority. And I’m certainly not talking about leaders on ego trips. But I am talking about losing your vision and dream because consensus is impossible to achieve. If you have permission to make a godly change, sometimes you just need to go for it. Buy in comes on the back end more often than it does on the front end.

      It also sounds like you and I might know a different group of leaders. This is not about acting in your own interest, but in the interests of the mission of the organization. I do know numerous leaders who are motivated like that.

    • cnieuwhof

      Hi Danny…thanks for your comments. I also appreciate your tone. I agree that the solution is not to go around the team or to usurp authority. And I’m certainly not talking about leaders on ego trips. But I am talking about losing your vision and dream because consensus is impossible to achieve. If you have permission to make a godly change, sometimes you just need to go for it. Buy in comes on the back end more often than it does on the front end.

      It also sounds like you and I might know a different group of leaders. This is not about acting in your own interest, but in the interests of the mission of the organization. I do know numerous leaders who are motivated like that.

      • Danny

        I know those leaders as well, but I would say most act out of personal interest without purposing to do so, which is why I think this advice dangerous. It is only through allowing a solid team of elders to be group visionaries that we ensure we are looking to the benefit of the Church and its mission, and ultimately to Christ, and not the ideas of a single, even well meaning individual. I just don’t see the Scripture calling people to join in the vision and dream of one leader, no matter how godly. This is why Paul called for the appointing of elders. Where do we see in the Scriptures something like “God calls few to get to have the dreams and vision, and the rest of you are there to carry out what he wants.” This is what causes a lot of apathy among leaders. I’ve seen elders sit back and watch the senior leader do his thing, and it kills buy in. Elders lead and rule, but on behalf of the people, as servants. As a pastor, I believe that our ministry has had the most success when I humble myself, and the elders dream together.

        Just an opinion of course

        • cnieuwhof

          Danny…enjoying the conversation. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. I think the assumption in my post was advice for people in unhealthy cultures, where the decisions aren’t godly. I am blessed with being in a culture where leaders make great decisions, and I rarely if ever act alone. But I have been in past contexts where I’ve had to lead the way because consensus would never be found for what needs to be done. And I think that in all likelihood, the majority of churches fit into an ‘unhealthy’ category. If a godly leader doesn’t blaze a trail, there might be no compelling future. I agree that where there is healthy culture and structure, team is an indispensable asset. But where the culture is unhealthy (and ungodly), team can be an obstacle to progress.

        • Matt Larimer

          Danny, how do you come to the realization that someone is acting in their own personal interest and not what they feel God is leading them to do? Isn’t that just judging their heart, when there is actually no way for you to know what their motives are? You are right that a lot of elders sit back and watch the leader do his thing, but that is because it is very difficult, for some people, to jump on board with someone else’s vision. I agree with Carey’s post, churches should hire pastors to lead and pastors should lead even when it is tough and there isn’t a consensus.

  • Mary Hewlett

    Great Post Carey !!! Your track record speaks for itself.
    If it wasn’t for people like you, we’d still be stuck in the dark ages !!

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Mary and Dee, thanks. And Mary, thanks for reading this post in the context of my other writings. Appreciated.

    • cnieuwhof

      Mary and Dee, thanks. And Mary, thanks for reading this post in the context of my other writings. Appreciated.

  • Eddy

    I think is is some of the worst advice that a pastor can receive. The main problem is in its context of leadership. A leaders decision greatly impact the lives of others. If the decision is bad, as they often will be, there can be signifiant collateral damage of lives. I’ve seen this exact sort of scenario play out in churches numerous times . . . destroying lives.

    Church is not a business, the collateral damage of people does not justify a favorable quarterly report. The Church is a body and our purpose is to love others. Spurning consent with brothers and sisters in this body is not love. It’s arrogant, rude and self seeking and anything seemingly accomplished through such means will profit nothing. Encouraging pastors to make their decisions independently insulates them from the people and relationships, what matters.

    Regarding the examples you listed. Jesus was God. We’re not. Under the New Covenant all of us, not just pastors, have the same direct access to the head of the church. In lieu of the examples you provided, I suggest the early church is a more specific example. The early Church leaders, which included apostles, did use consensus to make major decisions. See Acts 15.

    I think there’s a problem with lumping in Church leadership with “many other organizations” (i.e. the world’s corporate CEO centric structure) is that the Church is not supposed to be like the world’s structures. . . . Luke 22:24-26

    Pastors need less ego, not to have theirs inflated. Your post sounds like a short course in Narcissism . . . a disorder defined by people who have an inflated sense of their own importance and believe they’re superior to others and have little regard for other peoples insights. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/narcissistic-personality-disorder/DS00652

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Thanks Derek and Scott. Appreciate the nuance of being on ‘both ends’ of the situation. Makes you feel that.

      Eddy appreciate you sharing a different perspective, but I think there’s a reason that so many churches have weak leadership. Love is not making everyone feel good about a bad decision. I suppose we just disagree.

    • cnieuwhof

      Thanks Derek and Scott. Appreciate the nuance of being on ‘both ends’ of the situation. Makes you feel that.

      Eddy appreciate you sharing a different perspective, but I think there’s a reason that so many churches have weak leadership. Love is not making everyone feel good about a bad decision. I suppose we just disagree.

  • http://www.facebook.com/brotherderek Derek Carter

    Great post, Carey! Thanks! I’ve been on both ends of this…backing down from a great idea b/c not enough are on board, and being the one killing another’s vision by pushing for a broader consensus. It’s a tough balance to achieve effective, courageous leadership. Hoping I get there someday!

  • http://twitter.com/WScottCochrane Scott Cochrane

    “Individuals are almost always more courageous than teams.” Wow Carey, that’s a powerful insight. Thanks for a stirring post