While we’re on the subject of Total Cost of Ownership, News of the Weird reports that it costs the U.S. Mint 2 cents to manufacture each penny.

Which has, I’m sure, a clear tie-in to this week’s topic: How COVID-19 has transformed business leadership.

We can keep this short: It hasn’t.

Except that it has aimed a spotlight at those who are in leadership roles but shouldn’t be.

Back in 2002, in InfoWorld, I published these words:

Leadership is easiest in a crisis.

Crisis provides motivation and mutual trust, something leaders have to provide themselves in less urgent times. Crisis also provides alignment of purpose, allowing leaders the luxury of authoritarian decision-making. In less urgent times, leaders must consult with others, building alignment of purpose through the hard, delicate, necessary work of careful consensus building.

Leadership calls for competent execution of eight tasks (see Leading IT: <Still> the Touchest Job in the World): (1) Setting direction, (2) making decisions, (3) staffing, (4) delegating, (5) motivating, (6) managing team dynamics, (7) establishing culture, and (8) communicating. They comprise the job description for anyone in charge of an organization.

Before COVID-19 these eight tasks were what leaders had to master. That hasn’t changed, except that the stakes are higher and some of the tasks have become more difficult.

That the stakes are higher is obvious. So is what’s making many of the eight tasks harder — acceleration of the ongoing shift from in-person to remote employees.

Leaders still have to set direction. Excellent leaders won’t delegate that task to the virus, limiting their horizon to today’s immediate challenges. Yes, they do have to set a course that navigates through the crisis. But they’re also looking down the road to anticipate how their markets will change and what they need to do to take advantage.

Adequate leaders make decisions. The best leaders pay attention to how they make them, or, better, to who makes important decisions and how. Because the best leaders recognize that if they’re the best person to make most decisions they’ve done a terrible job of …

Staffing: The need to attract, recruit, hire, and promote the best talent available is, if anything, more important. That’s true for most businesses right now, because the stakes of bad decisions are higher, so leaders need the best in place to delegate decisions to. That means retaining the best in the face of painful layoffs and furloughs.

But it’s the soft skills of motivating, managing team dynamics, engineering and establishing culture, and most of all communicating that haven’t changed at all in principle … nothing about how they have changed has altered the essence of leadership one bit.

But leaders will have to brush up on the techniques they use.

Take a simple example — one that used to be so broadly accepted that it has become an assumed part of the leadership landscape: managing by wandering around. Guess what: Most business leaders, should they wander around, will wander around empty cubicles.

This and other informal techniques like so-called “skip lunches” (because those at the table communicate directly with an executive leader, skipping the intermediate leadership levels) to get an unfiltered view of What’s Going On Around Here … Zoom-based skip lunches are a non-starter.

And in a related development, those who work in teams will seldom if ever meet their teammates face to face either.

Merely competent managers will accept purely transactional relationships as an inevitability and adjust how they assign and receive work accordingly.

Excellent leaders will fight this every step of the way, recognizing that effective organizations are still built on trust-based relationships. For example, just because Zoom has supplanted … let’s start calling them “flesh-to-flesh” interactions … is no reason for leaders to abandon the once-common practice of weekly or bi-weekly one-on-one conversations with their direct reports.

Which gets us to communication and its sub-skills of listening, informing, persuading, and facilitating. Leaders still need to listen … to individuals, but also to figure out the more interesting challenges of organizational listening … so they know What’s Going On Around Here. They need to inform everyone of everything they need to know. They need to persuade everyone that the direction they’ve set is the right one so employees energetically help make it happen.

As for facilitation, the fine art of getting other people to listen to each other, in my experience very, very few leaders are even remotely competent at facilitating web-conferenced meetings. That’s true even of those who were quite good at face-to-face facilitation.

So how has COVID-19 changed business leadership? The job description hasn’t changed a bit. But the techniques leaders apply to their work?

These need serious attention.

One more re-run – a piece that completes some of the thinking in last week’s re-run. I think you’ll find it’s worth your time. Also the time of colleagues who don’t yet know about KJR. (Was that a strong enough hint?)

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As I get older, science fiction seems to have less science, which is too bad. Science is the hard work of figuring out how the universe works. It’s been replaced with swords and sorcery, which is simply wishful thinking, and as David Brin has pointed out, part of “wishful” is the assumption that in a feudal society you’d end up as something other than one of the peons who made up 90% of the population.

And so, while I wait for the next Discworld novel to appear each year, I’ve been reading more history. Regrettably, not quite enough, as several subscribers pointed out in response to last week’s column: Well before the Revolutionary War, England largely rejected the idea of the divine right of kings, replacing it with the inherent right of the aristocracy. Not that this was much better, nor do I know whether the English of the time claimed God wanted those with titles to be entitled.

People being what they are, I’d bet that they did.

Much of the rest of my correspondence had to do with the role of consensus in corporate decision-making. One source told me that a number of large corporations teach decision-making in their leadership training programs. Their programs (which, unlike the leadership seminars we provide, apparently require lexicographical activism) define both consensus and collaboration as conflict resolution processes, and then explain that consensus is bad while collaboration is good.

And if I define black as a shade of lavender, and white as a shade of tan, I can easily make the case that white suits make a better fashion statement for male business executives than black ones. “Collaborate” is widely understood (and defined in dictionaries) to refer to all situations in which people work together in a cooperative fashion. It’s a process. Not only is it not limited to conflict resolution, but it’s unlikely to resolve serious conflicts, since serious conflicts generally arise when people lose their ability to cooperate.

Consensus isn’t a process. It’s a result — general agreement, or more formally, a state of being in which everyone involved agrees to support a decision, regardless of what they personally would consider to have been ideal. The best consensus decisions start with collaboration, but collaboration isn’t required.

What is required is a shared desire to find some way to move forward.

Consensus isn’t the only way to make business decisions. It isn’t suited to all situations, or even most situations. It’s time-consuming, and is in consequence expensive. For engineering situations it’s risky, because the process of compromise required for consensus easily leads to design inconsistencies, and those, in turn, lead to kludges, deep in the heart of the architecture.

Use consensus when what matters, more than anything else, is buy-in — commitment to the course of action chosen by the organization. Use other methods for other circumstances.

Take product design as an example. A very good way to design products is to put a product manager in charge of a small team, consisting of experts from marketing, design, engineering, manufacturing, and cost-accounting. This gives you your best shot at creating a well-built product that’s easy to manufacture and appealing to customers.

Except that it’s never that easy. The most marketable product might be hard to manufacture. The best engineering might have too little market appeal, or be too hard to manufacture as well. What’s easiest to manufacture could require the elimination of highly desirable product features.

And what everyone else wants to build might end up costing too much, thinning margins to unacceptable levels.

Every member of the design team will have to make … that’s right … compromises. Which means that with all the best of intentions, your attempt to avoid the expense of consensus has simply shifted the responsibility for arriving at consensus to a different group of people. You don’t seriously think that having everyone make their case to the product manager, who then makes all of the decisions, will work, do you?

So here’s your guideline when it comes to design decisions of any kind: Unless one person knows enough to design the entire entity, whatever it is, charter a design team. Keep it small — no more than five people; three is better. Choose people who already know and trust each other’s judgment. Failing that, choose people who you know can work well with others.

Who can, that is, collaborate to arrive at consensus.