Socrates and the Consensus Leader

“You’re always telling me what to do!”

“You never tell me what to do!”

“You’re to lazy to actually lead!”


A subordinate in a stressful situation can make a lot of allegations but the root of the problem may still lead back to them. This is counter to what we tell most leaders. The fact that a root of a problem is with a subordinate does not mean we as leaders don’t have a responsibility to fix it. It doesn’t take a business leader very long to be inundated by the scholarship of leadership. Books upon books of tools, techniques, and strategies exist for leaders to peruse. The leadership literature overly simplified has a few basic threads that a person of engineering or tech will pull from it.

  1. Leadership as a management activity “you have not met this metric”
  2. Leadership a an autocrat or dictator “drop and give me 10”
  3. Leadership as a personality “believe in the rainbow unicorn!”
  4. Leadership as a servant “how can I help you be better today?”

There are more examples and hybrids of each that are also interesting. There is one though that rises up in so many job interviews, so many job postings, and yet seems so rarely to be actually discussed with information technology and information security professionals as a goal.

Consensus Leader!

The goals of the consensus leader is to get the most out of their team, create a team of teams environment, and drive toward a better than planned end result when delivering services, and projects. Well that is what almost every leader wants to get, and first and foremost there are a lot of ways to get there. However there are some very specific things you have to know and some crutches to help you get there until it becomes natural.

As a professor I drove my students nuts. When I first started teaching I took the text book, structured a lecture, developed a lab, and graded the students on a series of rubrics showing whether they solved the lab exactly like I would have done. How stupidly boring and irrelevant can you be as a professor? There are dozens of paths in an information technology system to get from point a to point b. How arrogant can you be to say only one path is legitimate?

Enter Socrates!

I restructured my courses around a series of narratives. I used stories of how I solved problems in the real world (borrowing heavily from my mistake laden past) and wedged the technical information into the narrative. This is sometimes called problem based learning. PowerPoint slides became a place to insure we covered esoterica of the technology rather than the specifics. I then started structuring my labs around a series of problems, and let the students discover the solutions. Google became a good friend and the really good students built entire personal libraries of techniques as the went through the courses. My job as a professor morphed from coming up with all the best answers to discovering the quality of how to ask the best questions.

Students complained and some students admittedly did very poorly and either dropped out of my program or took classes from other professors. I look back and wonder if I created an inadvertent filter heavily biased by problem solving. I did get a chance to try it at another organization where I had some metrics.

In one of my government jobs where strict hierarchical rules apply, there is a single boss, and opinions are valued after action is taken. I did get a chance to try my hand at driving consensus as a primary leadership strategy and utilized the fulcrum of Socratic method as a way to gate my way to decisions.

Just tell me what to do!

Things didn’t start well. The organization was low performing and was having lots of trouble achieving results. There had been a very autocratic leader for a few years and in the vacuum of his departure there were lots of issues. My senior leadership team was definitely not on the side of answering questions and taking guidance from consensus. On the good side they saw it as a slow, onerous, process that delivered less than optimal decisions. On the bad side they saw it as ignorance or abandonment of leadership. Yet, what about results?

In one year the production, quality, and consumer confidence in products doubled, and then quadrupled. The organization was recognized within their domain of expertise as the best of the best. Retention went from 66% to over 87% (the best in the organizational structure). Delivery estimates solidified and met on time requirements. Morale substantially improved. Of course the government decided to turn the program over to a more junior person who flipped back to an autocratic leadership style. Success was not sticky and I admit I still reflect on what might have made that success more long lasting.

Why how consensus?

Shouldn’t leaders dictate? Well yes and no. The difference between leadership and management is the difference between metrics and expectations. I can set accountability and set a requirement, and manage to those metrics. Fill out a form get a gold star. A leader though is about getting people to do things because they think it is a good idea. When utilizing consensus you must get more from the team than each of the individuals alone. The frame or reference must be a shared vision and understanding of reality. Failure must be available as a tool to build upon to achieve a better and more lasting success. Trust should be existent between the leader and the subordinate. Finally, check the ego at the door.

I use Socrates as my crutch.

I try to minimize the number of directives to my employees. I want every individual in the organization to own change whether a positive or negative. More importantly I want the people of the organization to own the process of change. Consider the following exchange between myself and a subordinate working on a major project? The last thing I want to do is kill innovation, productivity, or capability in the name of process and structure. The second to last thing I want to do is kill process and structure and live in chaos.

The subordinate wants me to tall him which option to choose, “Dr. Sam, we’ve got the team together and we have come to a decision point. You need to decide if we go with vendor A or vendor B.” I look up at the subordinate “What business problem are we trying to solve and what requirements have been generated comparing the current state and the desired future state?” The subordinate whips out a series of matrix and graphs, “We have 20 individual requirements all evaluated on a series of metrics. We found that we could retire X dollars worth of equipment giving a N rate of return making the entire project pay for itself in a few months.” Imagine my eye brow rise, “What is the delta between state a and state b and is there any increased risk to current or future revenue?” Having considered this before he turns the page and shows the total costs involved. I interject, “You wanted a decision today? What is the team assessment and how did they arrive at that assessment?” He turns to another page in his handout and summarizes the entirety with a long sigh.

Questions as a lead to why to bother

On a weekly basis I expect to get a report from my subordinates. This is part of the deal of not micro managing and of keeping a record. I have done this for every government and industry job I have ever held. The report is answering all the basic questions of who, what, where, when, and how. I can usually determine why. The why should be defined by the core beliefs of the organization. The why should be inherent in everything we do.

Resources though are finite and I want to know that they are being used within the strategic framework I have provided. Every organization will drift from answering strategic objectives toward working on the low-hanging fruit. I use reports as a monitoring tool. Every now and then they toss some comment in to see if I’m reading. I usually figure if they are doing that I keep my mouth shut and then point out some basic flaw later on down the line. Yes, that is a bit petty.

Do you want to lead or manage? If you’re afraid of their comments you’re not leading.

Quite honestly I don’t scale very well. My ideas and strategies do scale. I can only accomplish great things if great people work the processes and principles I put forward. Numbers on a piece of paper are horrible representations of people. Objectives achieved and a visible force of a company, program, or agency moving forward though is obvious to all. Consensus leadership and Socratic method means leading from the front. Being vulnerable. Being ready to change course and take responsibility.