Can Consultants Lead? Three Viewpoints

December 4, 2009
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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.



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?

Related posts:

  1. When Consultants Attack… Other Consultants
  2. In Defense of Consultants: A Punch-Out Based Rant
  3. The Different Focuses of Consultants and Clients