“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
That quote is often attributed to automobile industrialist Henry Ford.
Whether or not Ford said it, the underlying idea is a good one to remember.
Robert K. Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” in his important 1970 essay, The Servant as Leader. There he explains:
“A mark of leaders, an attribute that puts them in a position to show the way for others, is that they are better than most at pointing the direction. As long as one is leading, one always has a goal. It may be a goal arrived at by group consensus, or the leader, acting on inspiration, may simply have said, ‘Let’s go this way.’”
Greenleaf is right. Sometimes a leader’s goal is determined by consensus.
And sometimes not. Remember: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
Indeed, sometimes great leadership requires us to reject the consensus.
Good leaders can lead people where people know they want to go.
But great leaders can lead people where people don’t yet know they want to go!
Which is why foresight is a cardinal virtue of great leaders – by that I mean servant-leaders, of course.*
Foresight is the ability to see what’s coming. To hear what’s about to happen. To predict what the future holds.
Greenleaf says it nicely:
“Foresight is the ‘lead’ that the leader has. Once leaders lose this lead and events start to force their hand, they are leaders in name only. They are not leading, but are reacting to immediate events, and they probably will not long be leaders.”
In the workplace context, foresight allows us to predict what customers want before they want it and what competitors will do before they do it. Foresight is a foundation of innovation. Foresight can be the difference between creators and copycats.**
Of course, it’s a good thing for servant-leaders to seek consensus in goal-setting. That’s a powerful way to motivate people and help them connect to the mission.
But, I believe that servant-leaders must be ready, willing and able to reject the consensus of their followers – (that is, to reject the call for faster horses) – and say, in Greenleaf’s words, “Let’s go this way.”
What do you think? Are there times when servant-leaders must reject consensus in the course of their leadership?
Let us know.
As always, we appreciate your views.
Joe – [email protected]
Oh, and don’t forget to download our latest ebook, Servant Leadership in the Workplace: A Brief Introduction. It’s free!
* More on the cardinal virtues of servant leadership: “3 Cardinal Virtues of a Servant-Leader”
** How do servant-leaders in the workplace cultivate foresight? Here are some ideas: “Servant Leadership – 7 Ways to Cultivate Foresight”