Since sports metaphors are popular among management consultants (yielding grossly inflated speaking fees for washed up sports figures in the bargain) I always love hearing interviews with the coaches of losing sports teams. I’ve synthesized a typical example:

“Ed Jones just didn’t play very hard this game,” complained the coach. “And John Smith demoralized the team with that interview he gave you reporters yesterday. If he’d spend more time trying to hit the ball and less time spouting off, it would give the whole team a lift. And then there’s Jim Johnson. Sure, his stats look good, but he’s grandstanding. He needs to be more of a team player.”

And on, and on. If I had a manager who publicly berated his staff like that I wouldn’t bother firing him.

I’d hire a recruiting firm to sneak him into my fiercest competitor instead.

And then there were the professional football players in the late ’80s, who arm-twisted the concessionaires into supporting their strike. The next year, when the concessionaires went out on strike, do you think the football players supported them? Not a chance.

This may be one of the more useful crossover lessons from professional sports to business leadership — say what you have to in order to get your way, then conveniently forget it when it becomes bothersome.

The first time I was exposed to “employee involvement” our visiting consultant, diluting his sports metaphors a bit, explained how it would transform the role of the leader: from decision-maker and expert to “coach and mentor”.

Now there’s an energizing concept.

You still hear this nonsense every so often, so let me clear it up once and for all: coaching and mentoring are wonderful ancillary qualities for a leader. The job, though, consists of setting direction, establishing priorities, and clearing away every obstacle to success.

Somebody famous once contrasted management and leadership as “doing things right” vs doing the right things. I’m not sure I agree. I think leadership makes sure decisions get made; management makes sure jobs get done.

Making sure decisions get made isn’t the same as making all the decisions, and the most important difference between good and bad leadership is decision style. There are four ways to make decisions: Command (you just make it), Consultative (you ask a lot of people, then make it), Delegated (you give it to someone else to make), and Consensus (you ask everyone involved to make it together).

The worst leaders make a lot of command decisions. Command decisions make sense in a crisis (there’s no time to ask anyone else) and when the leader knows so much more than anyone else that other opinions add no value. Leaders who make lots of command decisions either have lots of crises (bad leadership) or weak, untrained staff (bad leadership).

Good leaders make a lot of consultative decisions. Gather a lot of facts, ask for a lot of competing opinions, and you’ll be a lot smarter about the choice you have to make.

Good leaders delegate a lot of decisions. Figure out the best person to make the decision and give him or her ownership of it. You’ll deal with less detail and the delegatee will grow with new responsibility. (Now, you get to help that person figure out which of the four decision styles to use. In most cases, I’d recommend the consultative style.)

Reserve consensus decision-making for very special situations. Consensus decisions are expensive and time-consuming. Use consensus processes when (a) you need everyone involved to own the decision; or (b) you’re leading your peers to a decision nobody has the authority to make.

If you find yourself trying to do everything by consensus, you’re not leading. Quite the opposite, you’re avoiding leadership, playing it safe.

You’re making sure you can blame the team.