Greenleaf writes: Being in the top position prevents leadership by persuasion because the single chief holds too much power. Chiefs often cannot say persuasively what they would like to say because it will be taken as an order. No one else can effectively speak for the chief because the listeners rightly want to know what the chief thinks.

I have had the privilege of being a thought-partner to a number of leaders in organizations that were seeking to embrace Greenleaf’s concept. I have also had the privilege of spending time in conversation with other leaders who were striving to embrace his concepts; these conversations took place during my visits to the organizations that they led. In every visit Greenleaf’s observation above was confirmed. The following example captures my general experience.

The owner of a very successful company – a company that was growing and diversifying – had immersed himself in Greenleaf’s writings and announced to me one day that he wanted to create a ‘Council of Equals.’ The company was quickly becoming too complex for him to lead without significant guidance from others. As his thought-partner I used inquiry to help him emerge a council of 15 (folks were invited for a number of reasons – some political, some because of certain ‘disciplines,’ some because of their thinking styles, and some because others ‘trusted’ them). The Council was powerfully diverse.

After describing the ‘experiment’ each person was asked to choose whether this was an experiment he/she could support and invest their time and energy in. It was not a surprise when each person said ‘yes’ to the invitation (as we surmised, and as was confirmed during the following 12 months, the ‘reasons’ for the ‘yeses’ varied greatly). One goal of the owner was to create a safe environment where each person could – and would – speak his/her ‘truth,’ offer his/her insights rooted in their experience and discipline, bring their voice (affirming and critical), provide good thinking, and honor the voices of the others. Building ‘trust’ rooted in safety was crucial.

What we learned, via experience, is what Greenleaf described above. Although the owner listened well – listened first, mostly – and honored each who spoke while helping create a safe environment the following pattern quickly emerged. After all spoke, the owner would provide his ‘thoughts’ – THEN – the miracle occurred. All quickly ‘changed their views’ and supported the owner’s thinking. They said, ‘your logic has convinced us!’ Now what was important was that the owner had worked hard at not ‘persuading them;’ he had worked hard at simply offering his ‘good thinking.’ It took a year for most of the members of this Council to not ‘cave in’ to the owner’s thinking. It also took the owner just as long to truly be open to the ‘different thinking’ of the members. Two members never ‘bought in’ and it took them nearly two years before they ‘owned’ up to this (although, like many things, the Council members knew this prior to the two members ‘owning it’).

Developing a Council of Equals is a daunting challenge. Many ingredients have to be in place for a significant period of time – a ‘staying power’ is required that many groups are not willing to commit to. However, as a number of organizations have demonstrated, creating an effective Council of Equals is possible – and the benefits of doing so are beyond counting.

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