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Can Consultants Lead?

Three viewpoints on an interesting subject.
Dec | 4 | 2009

Dec | 4 | 2009

Management guru Peter Drucker once said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” I’ve been thinking quite a bit about that line recently as I finish a, er, challenging project.

A few months back, I wrote a post called “Doing Things Right and Doing the Right Things” in which I lauded organizations that “got it.” From a consultant’s perspective, it’s simply a pleasure working with organizations whose management routinely does the following:

  • abides by best practices
  • listens to–and even encourages–dissenting opinions
  • holds itself accountable for unorthodox decisions
  • holds its end-users accountable for results
  • doesn’t pin everything on people like me

Well, I’ve entered Bizzarro World on my current project and it’s time to ask an important question:

Assuming that Drucker’s definition holds water, can consultants lead on difficult projects?

This post provides three viewpoints on that question.

Yes, we consultants can lead in the face of difficult clients, end-users, and senior management.

When clients routinely impose impediments to success and make suboptimal decisions, consultants can still do the right things. Ah, the case for optimism. Perhaps we do not (or cannot) tell our clients some of the things that we’re doing behind the scenes because we know how they’ll respond (not favorably). I suppose that “doing the right things” includes keeping clients in the dark about some of those right things.

For example, consider apathetic end-users who don’t look at data validation reports that manifest major issues. Consultants who proactively broach issues and encourage crusty end-users to investigate them are acting appropriately here, if perhaps above and beyond the traditional call of duty. Doing things like this is the very definition of leadership, especially when faced with a less-than-welcoming audience.

Is this paternalistic? Probably, but what’s the alternative? Diligent consultants are willing to risk both pissing people off and removal from engagements when their clients make bad decisions. After all, our names will be attached to the projects for better or worse and, in all likelihood, we’re going to be blamed for everything anyway. Why not go down fighting?

No, attempting to truly lead will only irritate clients and will ultimately “lead” to removal from engagements.

Many clients believe that no consultant is going to tell them how to run their candy store, to borrow a phrase from my friend Patricia Barlow of The Blue Mesa Group. Attempting to lead and influence the outcome of a project, engagement, or strategy is an exercise in futility. Add to the fray a bad economy and a related lack of consulting work. All of these factors make it ill-advised for consultants to truly exhibit leadership in these circumstances.

A corollary of this viewpoint is that some clients don’t pay consultants to lead. We are there to enable their vision, no matter how much we may disagree with it, no matter how certain we are that things will blow up when we leave. As a result, consultants need to “get over it” and allow clients to shoot themselves and reload.

It depends – the stock consultant answer to every question.

Not everything is a binary. Consultants may be able to lead to varying degrees based on the following factors:

  • the type of engagement (technology- vs. strategy-oriented)
  • the size of the engagement
  • the internal political climate of the organization
  • the economy (see above)
  • the industry
  • regulatory or audit considerations
  • timing

Two similar projects (much less two different ones) may yield vastly different opportunities for consultants to lead. A small scale data quality initiative at a nimble startup probably allows consultants to lead more than a large system implementation at a bureaucratic government agency.


Chime in, consultants, clients, and other thinkers out there. What do you think?


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  1. Julian Schwarzenbach


    Excellent and timely post for me – one of my clients, whilst not as bad as those described, certainly could do with some leadership.

    I think that is probably the key message – Consultants should provide leadership, however, it is up to managers/directors to actually lead. What I mean by this is that we should ensure clear and appropriate options are presented, but that we should not usurp management by trying to do the leadership ourselves (unless we are in interim roles which demand it).

    Such leadership should be given in a clear, objective, unemotional way with justifications and benefits/disbenefits expressed clearly. If management follow your guidance, or are able to justify an alternative approach, then this is fine. However, if such an approach is negatively recieved and ignored, then this should make you consider how long you should remain with this client.

  2. Jim Harris

    Great rant/post Phil,

    As someone who has spent the vast majority of his career as a consultant, I can certainly relate to many of the challenges you have described and all three of the viewpoints.

    However, in my opinion, the answer is clear:

    NO – Consultants can NOT lead.

    Why? Because consultants eventually leave – one way or the other. (Please note that I am intentionally omitting the contract-to-hire scenario.)

    From my perspective, consultants provide extensive experience and best practices from successful implementations. Their goal is to help clients avoid common mistakes and customize a solution to their specific business needs. Their primary responsibility is to make themselves obsolete as quickly as possible by providing mentoring, documentation, training and knowledge transfer.

    Therefore, consultants are facilitators and mentors. We help the cross-functional project team to work together by helping to clarify communication. On IT projects, these often means providing bi-directional translation between business and technical stakeholders, who often speak (or at least think that they do) very different languages.

    We help interpret business requirements and functional specifications, help explain business and technical challenges, and help maintain an open and ongoing dialogue. As you have noted, we will not also be viewed as helpful when doing this – kill the messenger is a cliché for a reason.

    We can also help internal resources (i.e., permanent employees) save face by playing the important role of “Designated Asker of Stupid Questions.”

    As the project progresses, the communication and teamwork will become more and more natural and the consultant will become less and less necessary – one of my most important success criteria.

    Although some of what I have described could be called “leadership,” I still believe facilitator and mentor are the more appropriate “labels.”

    Leaders (at least true leaders) don’t leave.

    Therefore, the first thing I look for on a new consulting engagement is to identify who the client’s leaders are. This includes the difficult challenges of not only making sure the client has designated leaders – but more important – and far more difficult – challenging the client if they have not chosen their leaders wisely.

    Consultants are NOT leaders, but we MUST be mentors to the leaders on our engagements – otherwise, we are not doing our job.

    Best Regards,


  3. philsimon

    Guys – great commentary. This is turning into a lively discussion. I’d like for someone on the client side to provide input, lest we consultants dominate the discussion.

  4. Don Frederiksen

    Hi Phil,
    Great post and dialog. Thank you for starting this conversation.

    I believe that consultants should be leaders.

    My perspective comes from the notion that leadership is a choice and not a title. It is also based on the idea that everyone in an organization can be a leader.

    As I write this, I note that on the surface my opinion seems quite the opposite of @Jim when he says ‘NO’. However I would define leadership to include the roles that Jim cites, e.g. mentoring, facilitating, advising and certainly collaborating are all leadership roles. It seems that Jim and I would only disagree on our definition of leadership. That’s a minor point in the scheme of things.

    In this consulting scenario, I would not define leadership as the hero that feels that leadership only occurs from the front. Rather, leadership is a bit like a dance where you will step forward, you will step backwards, sometimes you will lead, sometimes you will follow, and occasionally you will crash into your partners and learn from the experience. It’s the leadership dance and consultants need to be particularly nimble and balanced. You can read more in my Lead Quietly post.

    I like a quotation from the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu that speaks to the role of the leader,

    “As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence…. When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves!”

    In the same way, maybe the best consultant leaders are those who manage to lead very quietly. I would pay top dollar for this added value, aka a good dancer.

    Great conversation.

  5. Jim Harris

    Excellent comment Don,

    I agree that our apparent disagreement may simply be a matter of semantics.

    I love the dancing analogy and your Lead Quietly blog is a great resource.

    If we are going to use Lao Tzu, then I will also quote from Chapter 17 of the Tao Te Ching (I literally own eight different English translations of it, here I am quoting from one of my favorites, the “American poetic” translation by Witter Bynner), but I will substitute the word ‘leader’ with the word ‘consultant’:

    A consultant is best
    When people barely know that he exists,
    Not so good when people obey and acclaim him,
    Worst when they despise him.
    ‘Fail to honor people,
    They fail to honor you;’
    But of a good consultant, who talks little,
    When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
    They will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’

    Best Regards,


  6. Don Frederiksen

    Phil and Jim

    Jim and I may not agree on whether consultants should be leaders but we may agree that consultants should be good dancers. Issue resolved!

    @Jim – love the Lao Tzu adaptation. I’m thinking of printing this and giving it to the consultants on our team for their orientation.

    @Phil Great conversation

    Thanks for keeping it fun on my vacation day.


  7. philsimon

    Lao Tzu and dancing consultants. This must be a first in the history of the Web!

  8. Dalton Cervo

    Hi Phil,

    Great posting and great discussion so far. Here is a client side view.

    BTW, this posting is very timely. This week I published one of my Wild Wild MDM… comic strip, which turned out to be very controversial. Apparently I offended some consultants with my satire. But just like there are good and bad clients, there are good and bad consultants, and I have had experience with both kinds. My cartoons are about making fun about all of them, mostly on the bad side of course.

    I have to go with : it depends. In my opinion, quite often consultants are given a lot of latitude, which is not always presented to an insider. Consultants have the advantage of being perceived as neutral from a politics perspective. They should use that to their advantage. Obviously, the longer the assignment, greater the chance the perception may change. But a good consultant can keep it up.

    This neutral position should motivate consultants to lead when they see flaws. Chances are they won’t be criticized because they are not being biased, perceptually speaking. Furthermore, the experience of consultants is respected, which gives them leverage. On the other hand, they shouldn’t over do it. The key is balance. Leadership is also about being humble, in my view, and listening to experienced insiders.

    I see Jim’s point about “local” leaders, but nowadays everything changes all the time. People leave their jobs more often than ever. Layoffs, acquisitions, etc. You cannot count on somebody being there forever, consultants or not.

    A consultant that leads by example can be a great inspiration to others that will eventually take over when the assignment is over.


  9. Mike West

    Lively discussion? I have noticed that on this blog the comments are lacking the color and succinctness of those made on street corner websites such as CNN.Com, Fox.Com, etc. Here are a few real examples to study:

    “Anrkist -What’s it like to not be in touch with reality?”

    “bawittm- debasisg: your grammar is poor. So is your awareness. The ‘science’ to which you refer is fake, contrived and a pack of lies.”

    “dragonfire777- NOT.”

    In the spirit of lively street corner discussion, I will add my thoughts: “phil you just stepped in it.” Your question is troubling.

    I propose that “Leadership”, like most things that cannot be truly touched, tasted, smelled, or ground up is a social construction and therefore fleeting. In order to exist it must be both given opportunity and recognized. If Rush played the same songs but had no audience would they be musicians? Or would Getty be a leader? Bad example maybe.

    “Leadership” exists because we agree it exists and its definition serves a mutual purpose (,or potentially different purposes that at least align). Here I borrow a few words:

    The relatively stable patterns we observe in who is chosen as leaders are made possible only by the continuous and shared use of the same schemes of interpretation, which, in turn, depend on their constantly being confirmed and institutionalized. It is through these shared meanings and mutual acts of interpretation-actions and reactions within a particular social discourse–that a view of the world is constructed, one that we often call “reality.”

    A social constructionist perspective highlights that individuals–both leaders and followers–act in ways that they believe will be interpreted in a certain way by others. Thus we act and react not solely in terms of the meaning we attach to the behavior of others, but also in terms of the meaning we expect others to infer from our behavior.

    (from Rakesh Khurana in review of Invisible Management: The Social Construction of Leadership*) *this book will blow your mind

    After all this effort to carry on with an idea, I believe is why we are so often surprised and disappointed by the behavior those we believed to be “leaders” when they eventually act inconsistently with the image we worked so hard to create. It threatens our reality. I would argue that inconsistent behavior is quite natural actually, but in the case of a “leader” it is more commonly viewed as the ultimate betrayal. How could they not be what we believe them to be? How dare they? I am on a tangent, let me tie in.

    Given a social constructionist view of leadership I would suggest the following:
    1. Be on the lookout for clues about what you should do existing in small talk and other “invisible arenas”- symbols, conventions, norms, etc.
    2. In the context of an organization, it is quite possible that power relationships- their construction and reinforcement- is more important than outcomes. Specific outcomes are intended to reinforce the former, as opposed to the other way around. Beware the delusional executive, but consider alignment with this individual at least temporarily as it meets your goals.
    3. If your goal is to please the client, you must answer two questions- who is the client? And what does the client expect from me right now?

    One could take this further…

  10. Kevin Haynes

    Great Article;

    Having consulted for large corporate america and a top tier management consulting firm, I’m in agreement with:

    “Consultants who proactively broach issues and encourage crusty end-users to investigate them are acting appropriately here, if perhaps above and beyond the traditional call of duty. Doing things like this is the very definition of leadership, especially when faced with a less-than-welcoming audience”

    Thanks for sharing Phil


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