Command, Control, or Consensus: How to Decide?

Diane Musho Hamilton

Diane Musho Hamilton

Lately, I have been listening to the audio biographies of some of the U.S. Civil War generals—Ulysses Grant, Robert. E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, to name a few. People ask why a Zen teacher has even the slightest interest in military history. The short answer is that I am curious about leadership that calls for a flurry of strategic and tactical decisions under pressure, and in the type of person willing to make those urgent calls.

General U.S. Grant is known for unwavering loyalty to the Union cause and for his relentless pursuit of his plan. Robert E. Lee, the commanding general of the South, is remembered for his aggression, speed, and use of audacious movements in the face of overwhelming odds. Stonewall Jackson, also a rebel and the most eccentric of these generals, was a genius of stealth, maneuver and surprise. He was capable of moving an entire army as if by magic, without leaving a trace of his whereabouts nor an indication of where he would appear next.

In his genius, Jackson may be the most supreme example of command and control leadership. He could maintain the cover and agility of his army because he never shared his intentions with anyone—I repeat—anyone.  He never disclosed his considerations, he never revealed his conclusions, even to his own officers. He refused to elicit their views on the matters of the war, tactical or strategic, but when an order was given by Jackson, they were simply expected to move. If not, his soldiers and officers were severely disciplined.

In spite of this, he wasn’t immune to input. Early in the war, he created a war council comprised of his closest lieutenants, precisely to include their thinking. But when they made what he considered to be an inferior call, he never asked them again what they thought. They resented his autocratic style in the beginning of the war, but after they realized they were in the company of the genius, they became his devotees.

Such is the power of the guru or leader, the extreme elegance of hierarchy, and the unquestionable efficiency of clear lines of authority. This style of governance affords tremendous clarity, speed, and stealth. And particularly when the person in charge is brilliant and trustworthy, watching the leader make the call can become an aesthetic experience.

On the other end of the spectrum from the precision of command and control is inclusive, distributed decision making. Participatory styles of decision making can be as beautiful as elegant hierarchy, although I confess that I haven’t been listening to accounts of consensus decision making; probably because it would take too long. 🙂

Seriously, though—there are many historical examples of consensus decision making in which the depth of shared cultural values, the size of the community, and the deep familiarity and trust in the process makes for a style of decision making that supports and coheres the community. And I have participated in consensus style processes in my own life that were very enlivened and satisfying.

What is privileged in consensus decision making is the experience of belonging to a group. It calls on the wisdom of the whole. Consensus takes patience, perseverance, and the profound trust that including more perspectives and listening to more voices will indeed provide a greater view and a better outcome.

The Quakers, Mennonites, the Iroquois League, and other indigenous peoples are all famous historical examples of cultures in which successful decision making is shared by the community. Though the precise rules of their consensus process may differ, the spirit is the same: coming together, exchanging views, reaching agreement in service of the harmony.  For some groups, consensus is an expression of divine will.

Those of us with an integrative sensibility tend to be hungry for decision making experiences that blend the best of these two polarities. And there are, of course, many hybrids of decision-making processes; some formal, some laissez-faire. Some elicit input from members, some rely on voting; others on other numerical scales. Some employ spontaneous insight, while still others are protracted, careful processes with built-in checks and balances.

In all forms of decision making, there are two dimensions of engagement that define the terrain: the vertical (in which the leader decides), and the horizontal (in which the members decide). Through balance and integration of these two poles, more nuanced and adept decision making processes can be created.

For facilitators and leaders who wish to cultivate their facilitative influence, awareness of these polarities is especially relevant. We need to make decision making options an object of our awareness if we are going to skillfully support group process toward a successful outcome. And it is vital that we can perceive not only the wisdom of these two dimensions but also the potential shadow of both. In other words, no one wants to be ruled by a despot. At the same time, no one wants to drown in the inaction of “let’s-all-decide.”

This recording of our Integral Facilitator call focuses on polarities in decision making, and considers how the values of efficiency and coherence can perceived and balanced in all of our group meetings and gatherings. You can listen to the call here.

Diane Musho Hamilton
Co-Founder and Lead Teacher, Integral Facilitator®
Author, Everything is Workable, a Zen Approach to Conflict Resolution.

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2 thoughts on “Command, Control, or Consensus: How to Decide?”

  1. I’d love to hear what you have to say about these things but I live in Australia and 4am is a little early for me 😉 any chance of a recording available afterwards? I’m in the process of developing a series of cooperative structures with a group of people to meet all our basic needs in Melbourne, Australia and we are just about to discuss our decision making process.

  2. Bettina Hartmann

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing this perspective! I would have liked to see the integral perspective explored more, because I guess I have another take. You talk about horizontal and vertical decisions – but that structure doesn’t exist in teal / integral? There are no dominator hierarchies, only actualization ones. Laloux talks about organisations as organisms, ie. cells. So I guess an irregular circle or flowy line would be more accurate? Because he also talks about consulting all the people that will be influenced by the decision, but not necessarily following their advice?

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