I advocate group decision-making, but am often asked: “what exactly is the role of the leader where there is a group involved?” Not understanding that leadership role can lead to humiliation and lack of credibility – not to mention bad results. By understanding the leadership role in group decision-making and waiting for the fork, you can elevate your practice of leadership from rote activity to an art form. It is that leadership art that can bring excellent business results.

My first introduction to formal leadership training was in the Army where I was subjected to Officer Candidate School. The motto was “Follow Me!” We were taught to be assertive, to take charge (lead from the front), and to develop trust and respect with the team to accomplish compliance. The “follow me” concept is based on the idea that soldiers will follow their leader into battle if they trust and respect the leader and know the leader will do that which is asked of the soldiers. This trust and respect is earned through demonstrating competence, courage, and character. I benefited greatly from the training – it was one of the best educational and self-improvement episodes of my life. However, as I gained experience over the years, I began to understand how critical the timing was for shouting “follow me” from the front. I also experienced a fair amount of embarrassment and humiliation for not knowing when to shout “follow me.”

As a young second lieutenant in the Army, I quickly was confronted with the extent of my ignorance. When the team around you knows what to do and are doing it, there is no need to shout “follow me.” You need to watch, listen, ask questions, and learn. Shouting “follow me” when the team knows what to do without you, undercuts their trust in you and your credibility. Before I learned this lesson, I provided a fair amount of entertainment for several First Sergeants.

Leadership cannot function in a vacuum. For business success optimization there needs to be an established decision-making structure embedded in the business. The resulting decisions should be documented, communicated, and understood by the executives as they are made. This is the essence of dynamic planning, the most effective planning method. To make the best decision-making process, a small group of diversely informed individuals should aggregate their judgments and provide that wisdom to the decision-maker charged with determining and setting forth the policy. This group should be formed to include the elements of diversity, independence, and decentralization. Using a group in the decision-making process does not mean the group makes the decision. Where a group makes the decision, the process is too slow for most business situations. For the effective business process, group decision-making requires that an individual have the authority and responsibility to make the decision after consolation with the appropriate group. It is not always clear how that individual, the leader, evolves in the group decision-making process.

When you pay attention to what is happening with your team as decisions are made there will come a time when there is a void – the team is not sure of what to do. If you have been paying attention, listening, asking questions and learning, you as a leader may have a sense of what to do, feel this is your time, and want to shout “follow me.” Tempting as it may be, that might not be the right time. This is a lesson that is hard to learn. You may think you know what to do and want to demonstrate that, but rest assured you do not know enough to shout “follow me” and go charging on, not sure whether your team is following. What you need to do is follow the group process and develop support for the path you think may be correct through conversations with the group. The lesson to be learned is that of exercising humility in dealing with the emotion that you feel (that you know what to do) and the recognizing the possible reality (perhaps not adequately perceived by you) that you do not. Adherence to this practice will strengthen the trust and credibility the team places in you.

The term “fork” is used in the development of open source code for a software project, where developed code is used as the base for a new software project. To start the new project you fork the existing code by making a copy and work on the new software from there. The fork concept is analogous to the time when leadership can make the difference in the business decision-making process. If you have watched, listened, asked questions, and learned, as well as refrained from stating your belief rather than cultivating a group concept, then when something new becomes your vision, that background can allow you to fork (use that which has been developed) and take the team with you to build the new vision upon it. Great leaders recognize when to fork, and, having built trust and credibility with the team, bring the team to a place where they would not be were it not for the leader.

The leader must also manage the risk. In a business where dynamic planning is in place, where decisions are made through a group decision-making policy and immediately communicated to all involved, risks can be handled through revisions of planning when the need becomes apparent. As with most things in life, the greatest rewards go to those willing to take reasonable risks. Reasonable risks are those where actions can be taken to revise and correct based on monitored results. It is also in the art of the leader to see the fork opportunity, to understand the risk, and manage the risk.

The leader who waits for the fork, acts on the vision of the opportunity, has the trust and reliance of the team, and manages the risk can realize exceptional business results.