Business Is Not A Democracy

938387490The title of this week’s Struming sounds like the rationalization of an old-time leader wishing for the glory days of the “my way or the highway” school of management. It is not.

On the other hand, I do believe that successful businesses are highly collaborative, and yet ultimately authoritative with final decisions made by wise leaders. And those decisions aren’t always popular ones.

I believe that homogenized group decisions often yield results that are weaker, pleasing the group and creating decisions that appeal to the lowest common denominator. In the ad business where I spent the first half of my career, I saw this first hand, as well-meaning staffers at the client (and agency) often watered down good ideas. Good ideas are fragile and may not please everyone, and that’s OK.

A key element of true leadership is providing a platform for discussion, counter arguments, idea generation and new ideas. Yet in the end, a group’s leader needs to make a call and one that will not necessarily please all. In fact, I suspect decisions that please all are rarely the right one.

At an early stage in my career I used to think “they” (aka upper management) didn’t understand the issues the staff was facing, that “they” were short sighted, and unreasonable.  Then something happened—I became “they”. In fact, I became “they” in my mid 30s as President of a 100+ person ad agency. I better understood a larger picture of decision making, of trade-offs, of budget realities, client demands, personnel issues, etc. I learned to make hard decisions, decisions that effected people’s livelihoods. I needed to balance the skill and talent of high performers (some of whom had less than ideal attitudes) and lesser performers (but some of who were nice, well-liked “nice people”).

I read an interesting article recently called How Nice Leaders Create Team Drama. The article discusses team leadership and the downside of too much likeability and friendship in team dynamics. In its conclusion, it states the following:

“The paradox of likability is this: The very qualities that makes a leader likeable can also become the obstacle to growth and the root cause of costly mistakes”

In the end, the best run companies understand the following equation:

Talent + Teamwork + Leadership = Success

Business is not just about “nice”, or everyone having a vote. Business is not a democracy. While collaboration is a virtue, having some friction and having leaders who appropriately assert their leadership position and who are willing to make less than popular decisions are important.

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