Does Leadership by Committee Work?

There is an old saw: A camel is a horse designed by a committee. You can ride a camel, true, but it just isn’t the same. You can try to lead by committee, but you won’t be happy with the ride.
Does Leadership by Committee Work?
In: Column, Leadership

December 14, 2010

My wife, Mary, and I decided our marriage was strong enough to redo our bedroom. It has been years since we went with the green that George Washington used in his sitting room. I wonder if Martha said, “It looked different on the color card at Home Depot, but I think we’ll get used to it.” We haven’t. So we formed a couple of committees.

My committee is in charge of applying whatever color scheme Mary’s committee comes up with. I know my place. If left up to me, my friends would come over and admire my work.

Friends: “I love what you’ve done with the place!”

Me: “Yes! I took a chance and selected a slightly darker dirt color for the walls, ceiling, and floor. Then I went wild with this dust-colored trim; it’s edgy, but I think it works.”

My ideal room would be a cave that never needed cleaning. The only drawback would be that the room would shrink, year after year, a micro-millimeter at a time. I am very glad to have Mary, so I am not a caveman.

In our case, the committee system seems to work pretty well. (Marriage saving note: we actually selected the colors together this time, and Mary worked very hard in the prep and cleanup.) Strong committees and teams are necessary for effective organizations. There are many benefits when groups are used at the right time for the right reasons:

  • For innovation, creativity, brainstorming
  • For generating problem-solving ideas
  • For completing defined projects
  • For Iron to sharpen iron; counterweights provide balance
  • For safety in numbers, wisdom in a multitude of counselors
  • For Boards: a perspective from 30,000 feet; protection; a governor on position power; to tell the Emperor when he has no clothes

Too much reliance on committees, however, is debilitating. “Sir, the building is on fire!” “I see. E-mail the department heads. Tell them to form a group to select a task force. Commission them to identify the problem, define alternative solutions and make a recommendation for the Board. We’ll meet in the parking lot on the other side of the fire trucks.” Committees, for all the good they can do, should never do one thing: lead.

Name an organization that has changed the world with leadership-by-committee. Effective leadership is multi-faceted, but in the end, it comes down to making difficult decisions, being the face of those decisions, and being accountable for the results. There is an old saw: A camel is a horse designed by a committee. You can ride a camel, true, but it just isn’t the same. You can try to lead by committee, but you won’t be happy with the ride.

An effective, visionary organization that is destined to accomplish great things will be led by one strong, purpose-driven, principle-centered leader—a stallion, not a camel.

As for Mary and me, I am clearly in charge…of making her happy. So I am gushing over the new Cherry Tart color on our accent wall—no, really. I do like it. George and Martha would hate it.

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