Intent-based leadership in a Consent-based environment

How can leadership control the ship while self-organising teams take the decisions ?


Marty de Jonge

3 years ago | 6 min read

Leadership is as old as we can remember and something that we all need from time to time. ( Yes, even people like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Bill Gates (or Steve Jobs if you’re more of that club) needed (thought) leadership to reach their own full maturity. )

However, the way in which effective leadership needs to be given has changed exponentially in the last decades. There where Taylorism has proven to be a denominating successful leadership practice in the last century to get where we are now, in this current day and age it has lost its effectiveness.

In this article, I want to bring two insights on leadership skills I gained lately together and make clear how they can reinforce each other.

  • On the one hand ‘Intent-based leadership’, that has become known from the bestseller ‘turn the ship around’ by David Marquet,
  • On the other hand ‘consent-based decision-making’ from the sociocracy 3.0 principles.

Intent-based leadership

In this business novel - Turn the ship around- David Marquet describes how to create leadership at every level within an organisation. In the book, he takes us on his journey as captain of the USS Santa Fe nuclear submarine. He had the guts to lead in a completely different way. He experienced that Top-down leadership sometimes puts the men directly in danger. Instead of that, he decided to give control to his men: with amazing results. ( sorry girls, only guys allowed on a submarine)

Marquet describes the traditional top-down control as the leader-follower model in which the followers have limited decision-making authority and where they are barely encouraged to make the best possible use of their intellect, energy and passion. The follower has learned that he must rely on the leader who makes all decisions, rather than fully focusing on the work process himself to make the organisation run as smoothly as possible.

In contrast, Marquet and his men worked in a leader-leader model that not only brought about improvements in terms of effectiveness and morality, it also made the organisation sustainably stronger and more agile. Only a few institutional changes and information communiqués were required to start with this leader-leader structure, but it required a complete reevaluation of the way they understood leadership and the way decisions were made.

To do so, David Marquet introduced the concept of “intent-based leadership” which comes down to this:
The leader-follower model assumes that the leader gives all the commands. The underlying assumption here is that the captain of the boat knows everything and can make the right decision at all times.
Marquet realized that he could never have all the knowledge of the 142 other crew members on the Santa Fe on his own and decided to actually use the ‘knowledge of the crowd' for the benefit of the entire organisation.
Instead of asking permission if they were allowed to do something like change course, dive deeper or start doing maintenance, the crew members now had to go to their commanding officer to indicate what they were intended to do with the statement “Sir, I intent to….” .
If necessary, the officer asked for additional reasons or considerations underlying this intention, but otherwise, the office just said “OK”.
This brought autonomy and leadership to each individual crew member himself, decisions were made where the people with the most knowledge were present and content was given to the leader-leader model.

Consent based decision-making

Making decisions based on consent is one of the basic principles of Sociocracy 3.0, a framework for rapid and equal decision-making for the team and a method for converting this decision into action.

As we saw in the example of the USS Santa Fe, a decision does not necessarily have to be made by the person who has the most stars on his shoulder or who shouts the loudest. Within sociocracy 3.0, consent-based decision making is used as a method that gives each person in the team a voice and puts equality and progression first.

Consensus and consent. What is the difference?

Consensus is a decision based on unanimity. The decision is only taken when all participants are “in favour”. The beauty of unanimity is that it prevents the power of the majority to overrule the minority. Everyone is equal en everyone agrees. This sounds very nice of course. But the chance that a decision is actually made is therefore very small or at it’s best it delivers a mediocre solution. Ask yourself: Is it really necessary that everyone is “fully in favor”?

Consent decision-making is not based on unanimity, but on “good enough for now, safe enough to try.” If no one in the group objects to the execution of a proposal, the proposal continues. The objections and concerns are specifically used to enrich the proposal, instead of blocking it.

The process of consent-based decision-making

A group wants to decide together whether or not a proposal will be implemented. Based on voting rounds, the concerns and objections of the group with regard to the proposal are examined. In every voting round, the entire group is involved, regardless of function, department or responsibility.

This is the (simplified) process you go through when applying consent-based decision-making:

  1. The person who has submitted the proposal in advance explains the topic or tension.
  2. The group may ask clarifying questions. The goal here is not to discuss but to first understand the proposal.
  3. The individual emotional response of everyone is checked.
  4. The person facilitating the meeting asks for consent. Everyone raises their fists, counting down to 3 and a hand gesture indicates whether or not there is consent.

No objection: If everyone puts their thumb in the air, there is consent to the proposal, it can be implemented and action can be made.

Worry: there can be worries, but these do not inhibit the decision-making process. The concerns are discussed and “integrated” in the proposal. Consent is about acceptance instead of approval, not “should I do this”, but “I can live with this.”

Objection: This is seen as something positive: someone shares their perspective on the proposal with the intention to enrich it.
How can we combine the value of both points of view in an ‘and/and' solution instead of in an ‘or this/or that' solution?
 If the objections can be removed or integrated immediately, there is another vote on the proposal.

5. Once the objections have been removed and the concerns discussed, the group has come to a consent decision-making.

The intent-based decision

All the overriding objections have been removed, the concerns have enriched the proposal and it has received consent from the group. Yes! Time to celebrate! The group was able to make an Intent-based decision. Everyone’s voice has been heard and the next step can be taken. Action!

How does intent-based leadership strengthen a consent-based decision?

From the initial point of view that knowledge lies within the teams and within people themselves, intent-based leadership is built on a positive image of mankind.

Intent-based Leadership implicitly assumes that every person has all the necessary capacities to make independent and intelligent considerations and come to decisions based on that.
It also has the basic assumption that people do not necessarily go for their own benefit or personal gain. They are prepared to rely on the judgment of another to be able to make a decision. People can have worries but they can also step over them to come to a well-supported decision. They do not require a “boss” or manager to take on the “responsibility” and make a final decision. They can carry their own responsibility.

When you get the confidence of ‘leadership’, that you can weigh the pros and cons and come to a well-founded decision (based on the knowledge of today), they give you the trust of no longer having to ask for permission, but simply express your intention.

When you get this trust, you are also willing to come to a consent-based decision that is the best one to serve the purpose. Even if this does not support your own personal goal.

How does a consent-based decision strengthen intent-based leadership?

In the case of the USS Santa Fe, it helped enormously that crew members could determine among themselves when, for example, what kind of maintenance had to be done. On the basis of consent, the men looked at how the various activities in the engine room could best be planned one after the other (or parallel to each other). In such a way that the moment a valve is dismantled for some reason, the valves are immediately lubricated instead of waiting until this was scheduled and ordered by a superior. But they also considered which activities have more or less priority to do first. Because of this, the leadership knew that an intention presented by the people who have the best knowledge on the subject is well thought out and can, therefore, have the confidence that in most cases the intention expressed is the right decision to be made at this time.

This way consent-based environments are the best to let intent-based leadership strive and come to the best results.

They are like Yin and Yang. They both balance each other and strengthen each other.


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Marty de Jonge

As an agnostic change agent, I am constantly amazed at what happens in organizations and learn every day. Enthusiastic writer and always open for discussion.







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