Does Participative Leadership “Dull the Sword”?

by Peter B. Grazier

The Client’s Question
Recently I was asked a question by one of my clients that sent me into a state of contemplation. The question asked if by changing an organization’s leadership style to one of greater participation, would the leaders be handicapped when they find themselves in other, more “aggressive” business environments? The implication was that if aggressive behavior is the norm in, say, a large organization, then a participative style of management in one division might just “dull the sword” when one is having to operate outside the division.

At first I found myself disturbed by the term “dull the sword” when applied to participative leadership. It has never been my belief that this style of leadership is in any way weak or passive. But then it occurred to me that one could easily draw this conclusion.

In the American business culture the strong, independent-thinking leader is still rewarded for these behaviors. Even though there is ample evidence that organizations fare better when they focus on the human dimension1, this image of strong, aggressive leadership still prevails. And so the question above is legitimate.
While contemplating this question, I thought “What would I do if I, as a participative leader, found myself in a room full of strong, demanding, aggressive leaders, all vying for the right to press their agendas? Would I be handicapped in any way by having acquired a participative style?”

It’s Not Your Only Option
I think the fallacy of these questions lies in the assumption that participative leaders are in some way weak and, therefore, not capable of holding their own in an aggressive environment. Being a participative leader does not imply that other styles are not available to use when needed.

For example, I once facilitated a 20-person problem solving team made up of 10 union leaders and 10 management leaders. This was the first team of this kind in the company’s 100-year history, and the team had great difficulty making progress. Just when I thought we were moving forward, something would blow up and there would be finger-pointing and red faces everywhere.

As the weeks progressed, I tried to be the model of temperance and the voice of reason., but the eruptions persisted. One day we were working well together when the group suddenly fell back into their old behaviors. I decided in my mind that a complete change of state was needed. I had to do something completely different to move them out of their petty, self-indulgent behavior.

As I stood in the middle of the U-shaped tables, suddenly I threw my pen on the floor with such force that its cap flew off, the veins stood out on my forehead, my face turned purple and angry, and I let loose with a string of profanities that almost made the carpet curl.

Within an instant the room was silent…and stunned. This model of temperance, this voice of mediation, this bastion of reason had just erupted like Mt. St. Helens. It was all an act, of course. I knew exactly what I was doing…and it worked. The meeting proceeded without a hitch.

Just because we possess characteristics of temperance, and skills of mediation and facilitation, doesn’t mean we don’t have other options (such as aggression) available to us when needed.

In the years that I have been doing this work rarely have I had to resort to such tactics. Most of the time modeling better behaviors tends to influence the group to behave similarly. The point is simply, you always have other options.

“Sharpening the Sword”
As I continued to discuss this issue with my client, I thought of all the people whose skills have been enriched and honed by the addition of participative practices. Perhaps it is only human nature that as we acquire new skills, our confidence levels rise.

I have watched people at all levels of the organization solve problems they thought were unsolvable. I have watched people lead discussions that they would have never considered possible. I have watched the most unlikely people promoted into better positions because their new-found participative skills turned them into more effective leaders.

In a sense, and to use our current metaphor, they had actually “sharpened the sword” instead, giving them more confidence in dealing with the unexpected.

There is something inherently reassuring when you know you have the ability to accomplish “the impossible.” There is also enormous comfort in knowing our group or department’s performance levels are high because your people are engaged.

In my own case, I have found myself in many different environments over the years, some open and inviting, but others hostile and aggressive. Confidence is a welcome ally when you know your stuff works. You know it, and the people you’re with soon know it too. Perhaps this is why the purple-faced, vein-popping tactics are seldom needed.

1. Competitive Advantage Through People by Jeffrey Pfeffer

“Conflict is a violation of harmony. If you participate in it, you are part of the problem, not the solution.”
Dr. Wayne W. Dyer