What is consensual leadership?

Written by: John Pearce | Published:
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Consensual leadership is about encouraging acceptance and agreement before actions are taken and this approach has never been more relevant. John Pearce explains

Consensual leadership is an idea I’ve been mulling over for months. It started with my own and others’ frustration with the torrent of depressing headlines in the last year, and wondering how we can change things.

Fake news, sexual abuse, Grenfell Tower, child safety, the gender pay gap, social media corruption, Windrush – a common theme in all of these seems to be abuse of power.

Dictatorial, non-consensual leaders tend to act first and think second, if they think at all. When things go wrong, as they often do, they talk of “unintended consequences” to excuse their lack of thought – probably because they didn’t seek the help or advice of others. If they did consult, it is likely that others were too frightened to disagree.

We have to break the cycle, and consensual leadership might be one way of doing that.

What is consensual leadership?

Reasonable people, especially in the groundswell of the #MeToo response, are coming to accept that the best personal relationships, especially but not exclusively sexual, are judged on whether they were consensual – literally judged in many cases.

I began thinking, shouldn’t we apply the same standard in our working relationships? Surely, they too must be consensual. In part this is about modelling the kind of behaviours we want to nurture in those we lead, especially our students – the future leaders.

My starter definition for consensual leadership is this: “Consensual leadership is about encouraging acceptance and agreement before actions are taken. It is about seeking cooperative approaches and mutual understanding. It implies sympathetic and emotionally intelligent responses. It is inclusive, enabling and empowering and encourages working together and caring interdependently. It’s also about unconditional regard, respect, love and dignity of thought.”

Years ago I developed a self-evaluation framework called iAbacus to address a similar scenario I witnessed in struggling schools. I had been disheartened about the way teachers and heads were being affected by “top-down” inspection regimes and a bewildering series of government acts, edicts and changes. We all saw this disempowering teachers and leaders, many of whom spoke of depression, stress, and bullying.

Because of this, I deliberately and uniquely started with the views of the individual professional or team. By acknowledging their professional judgements, the framework empowers them, includes them in decision making and builds their capacity to make things better. The aim is that through this process, eventually they will be capable and keen to take control. I believe this model can also be used to encourage consensual leadership.

Evaluating consensual leadership

I have long argued that “judging the point and nature of intervention” is our key skill as teachers and leaders. That means choosing whether to intervene, or not, and then when and how to intervene to have a desired effect – in this case to instil and develop consensual leadership behaviours and sustain interdependence.

THE PANINI Continuum

PANINI stands for Point And Nature of Intervention Needs Intelligence. Okay, it is an awful acronym but hopefully you’ll remember it. The model is based on the idea that moving our behaviours from left to right on the continuum will bring about consensual relationships.

For those who are interested, it extends the reach of the Tannenbaum Schmidt continuum, the Heron Facilitation Model and action learners like Alma Harris and Mike Pedler.

Essentially, it suggests that behaviours on the right side will facilitate better cooperation and interdependence. It is about working through agreement. It is not that the left side is wrong. It is recognising that too many left-hand behaviours will tend to build dependence: “Please Miss – what do you want us to do next?”

So, we ought to use more right-hand behaviours if we want to build capacity, encourage sharing and team-work. We want colleagues and students to say: “Hey, we can do it ourselves!”

Let’s explore too, how it is possible to tell and instruct with agreement, i.e. consensually: “Let me show you first, in order that you will do it better when you have a go.” This sounds and feels very different from dominant, non-responsive telling and instructing: “Do as I say, because I say so (because I am your boss, because I am paying you, or because I’m bigger/stronger than you).”

Conversely, it is possible to delegate cruelly by dumping work on colleagues. It can also be dangerous to let go too soon, before individuals are ready. Consensual leadership is about tone and manner too. It is about knowing your people and it demands emotional intelligence.

Applying the PANINI Continuum model will be about making appropriate choices. It lets us judge that point and nature of appropriate intervention as we try to foster consensus and interdependence. It is about leaders building capacity and confidence in those we serve. I urge you to play with PANINI. Use it to look at what you do, with a view to doing it better next time. Consider shifting the bulk of your interventions to the right as soon as possible. Hand over responsibility; dare to trust. You could:

  • Review something you led recently and assess how you might have deployed more of the right-hand approaches – sooner and with more people.
  • Challenge yourself and others, about how and why you will plan to use a range of consensual styles in a new initiative.

Implications for leading and teaching

Judging by the rapid and growing response to my initial presentation on consensual leadership at a #WomenEd event (see further information), many are already seeing leadership applications globally and locally.

If we want to empower the next generation of leaders, there are huge implications for how we lead education and teach.

Crucially, if we want our young people and colleagues to understand and apply consensual leadership in their personal and working lives, we must begin to model it ourselves, in our day-to-day behaviours.

We must give hope to those who have been and are still being abused by some in power. I genuinely want to discuss and develop this thinking with anyone working in education who may be interested. Please make contact.

Further information

Presentation on Consensual Leadership, John Pearce, at #WomenEd #LeadMeet, Mansfield, April 2018: http://bit.ly/2JwsPTz


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