The art of persuasion and building consensus

Michelle Poché Flaherty, City on a Hill Consulting
Great leaders are not remembered for maintaining the status quo. If your charge as an elected official is to leave your community even better than you found it, then your legacy will be defined by your ability to collaborate with others to orchestrate a transformation. You are much more likely to succeed in advocating for your agenda if you take a strategic approach to consensus building and change leadership.
How hard can it be to lead with a great idea? Oscar Wilde once said, "An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all." When we are motivated with great conviction, we tend to forget that championing a revolution can make our proposal—and us—sound dangerous.
We expect our constituents to trust that we know what's best for them, and we expect our fellow community leaders to get on board without question. We expect everyone to believe that this time things will turn out better instead of worse, and to have faith that the unknown will be better than what they've already got. Meanwhile, all their instincts tell them to stick with the devil they know.
No matter how much seniority you have or how many people voted for you, you cannot force people to support your ideas. A leader is not defined by position; a leader is someone whom others choose to follow. The key to getting people to support your new idea is to shift their focus from what they stand to lose, to what they stand to gain.
Too many leaders make the mistake of focusing their initial communication on explaining what their change is and how it will work. Instead, you must start with the all-important message of why your change is needed. Don't assume everyone already understands why it's necessary. Show your constituents what's in it for them and what they stand to lose without it. Once people are open to the possibilities of your idea, then you're ready to start explaining how it will work. Or, better yet, collaboratively design how to implement it with those who have the biggest stake in it.
If you accept that even the best proposal will be met with resistance, then you appreciate why a good leader does more than just start the ball rolling. You must work to keep it rolling throughout the execution of your change—and afterwards. As your change gets implemented, look for ways to make it easier for people to adapt to the change: share information and give them encouragement.
Ensure your change gains traction by reinforcing it after it has taken hold. Spotlight the benefits that are resulting from the transformation and, if appropriate, continue to identify the risks associated with going back to the old way. Emphasize the positive and invest in the structures that will support and sustain what you have created.
Finally, celebrate your victory with your partners and supporters. Share the credit for the transformation with everyone who helped to make it happen. Remember a successful idea will outlast its champion. When you move on, strong community partners will carry the torch for your efforts and uphold your legacy.
Michelle Poché Flaherty led a preconference session on "The Art of Persuasion" during the Association's Annual Meeting in July. For more resources on this topic, visit