The Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States — our two most important founding documents — are remarkably secular. Rebukes to English governance, which claimed its legitimacy from God through the divine right of kings, they state with complete clarity that the legitimacy of governments is obtained, not from Heaven, but from the consent of the governed.
The words are clear and accessible to anyone who is at all literate and has the patience to read them. That this was the consensus of this nation’s founders is not in serious doubt.
Also not in serious doubt is the respect our nation’s founders had for consensus itself, perhaps because it is the purest form of the governed’s consent. In each case they spent a very long time discussing and debating what they should think and how that thinking should be expressed; also in each case, different factions compromised to reach the final decisions. Both documents were results with which each group and faction might not completely agree, but to which they could and did completely commit.
It’s become popular to consider the Constitution’s framers as selfish, wealthy, racist landowners interested solely in preserving their status. But this oversimplifies the complexity of their circumstances. When they led the Revolutionary War, they had quite literally risked their lives and fortunes to gain independence from England. Their sincerity of purpose in creating a resilient nation seems more likely than otherwise.
As for slavery, it is beyond doubt that many of the framers abhorred it (many with more moral courage than, for example, Jefferson, who abhorred slavery in principle but not so strongly as to suffer the personal inconveniences to be experienced from its elimination). The Constitution’s allowance of slavery demonstrates the nature of consensus better than any of its other features: Even those who hated it the most valued preservation of the nation even more. They understood, perfectly, the need to give way on some points — even those held very strongly — to achieve the larger result.
Consensus is falling out of fashion in leadership circles these days, and we’re the poorer for it. Three reasons seem to dominate this shift, all the result of too-limited understanding of the subject:
- Wrong definition: Consensus is the form of decision-making in which a group might not fully agree with the final decision, but does commit to the final decision specifically because it is the decision of the group. It is not what some detractors call consensus — a process in which a group argues until it gives lip service to a decision which those who approve adhere to and those who don’t feel free to ignore.
- Wrong priority: Achieving consensus is not a quick process. To those who participated, the Constitutional Convention seemed eternal; it did, in fact, require almost four months.Consensus is the wrong process to be used when speed is essential. Conversely, speed is sometimes the wrong priority for leaders to choose — there are many times when commitment is more important than velocity. In business, excessive speed can lead to undesirable results, among them “leaders” who leave those who are supposed to be following too far behind them; and leaders able to win every battle while fighting the wrong war.Metaphorically speaking.
- Wrong technique: Voting is the process where everyone argues, and then tallies up preferences so that the majority wins and the rest lose. Consensus requires an expectation that everyone involved has to give way on some points. It also requires that all concerned do more than allow others to speak while they formulate their rebuttals. It requires actual listening — working to understand the other person’s point of view. That, in turn requires patience, an art practiced extensively by those who participated in our nation’s founding, as the prevalent style of speaking at the time was both windier and more formal than what we practice today.
In general, consensus results in more commitment, but to a relatively poor quality result. Because consensus requires compromise, this generality can’t be entirely avoided. But listening — recognizing that others have wisdom as well — can offset the effects of compromise, making the final result better than what any single individual can achieve.
It’s been said that no committee ever painted the Mona Lisa. That is, of course, true. It’s also true, though, that it was a committee that wrote the Constitution of the United States — a document that is, in its own way, as much a work of art as anything ever created.