The Leader’s Veto Power

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Did the title of this post make you wince? The idea of a veto runs contrary to the value we place on a participative leadership style, but it has a legitimate purpose and there are scenarios when it must be used. Hopefully these times will be rare, but they may arise and team members should be aware that this is so. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the chance that a veto will ever be necessary.

Conditions in which you might use a veto

There are two basic scenarios where the possibility of a veto arises. One is where the decision is within your area of responsibility, but you prefer to have a group decision. This is often the way a senior leader operates with the executive team. The other is where you have delegated the decision authority to one of your direct reports and expect them to make a decision. It is possible in either situation for a decision to be made that you simply cannot accept. Although guidelines for decision making can be set, every decision boils down to a matter of judgment, and no two people will always judge everything exactly the same way. As the more senior leader, if in your judgment:

  • the risk level is too high,
  • there are competing higher priorities for limited resources from other areas of the organization,
  • it sets a bad precedent, or
  • some aspects of the decision affect something over which someone else has the decision authority,

then you may find it necessary to overrule the decision. But doing so may cause other problems because you originally said the decision was for others to make! You have to take particular care that no leader’s credibility with the staff is damaged because of the veto.

A necessary tool

If you are in a leadership position, it is because someone believes your judgment is good enough that they can entrust you with your position. You were chosen over all other candidates to do your job. So team leaders at every level have a duty to hold in reserve the right to say “No” to anything that in their judgment has significant repercussions that they cannot live with.

Senior Leaders

The board trusts the senior leader to guide the organization. In most cases, the senior leader is the board’s only employee and is accountable to the board for everything that happens within the organization, whether good or bad, whether done by the senior leader or by others. Senior leaders cannot excuse poor organizational performance on the basis that they were outvoted by their leadership team. The board would have every right to fire the leader for not exercising good judgment and good leadership.

Other Leaders

Other leaders within the organization are likewise placed in their leadership positions because the senior leader trusts them to use their own judgment to get results from their teams. They can’t excuse poor team performance on the basis that they were outvoted by their teams either!

No leader can in good conscience allow a decision to stand if they believe it will be detrimental to the organization’s ability to fulfill its mission. That would be a gross dereliction of duty. The basic principle of delegation is that you can delegate responsibility but not accountability. Leaders will always be held accountable for the decisions of their staff. It is as if they made the decision themselves. They therefore have the right, and the obligation, to veto a decision when necessary.

Use it sparingly

I assume every leader wants to lead well, and most will understand the value of shared decision making, so in real life veto power should rarely be used. When it is, it causes problems such as these:

  • People don’t like uncertainty, and if a leader exercises a veto frequently, decisions will be seen as arbitrary and thus unpredictable. The result will be anxiety among the team members.
  • Shared decision making results in greater buy-in from team members because the decision is seen as fair. Even if a team member is outvoted, they still recognize that votes are a fair and democratic practice. So when such a vote is overturned, the team members (who are the ones who will be asked to implement the new decision) may not give it their wholehearted effort.
  • When a veto is used to overturn what was to be a shared decision, team members will wonder why they were asked to make a decision when it appears the leader had already made the decision. (In reality, the team probably came up with a decision the leader did not anticipate.) No one likes trying to guess what outcome “the boss” wants. Vetoing a decision made by a group is highly demotivating.
  • When a decision that was delegated to a staff member is overturned, that staff member will be very disappointed to say the least, will see it as a vote of non-confidence, and if others know the decision was overturned, will suffer loss of credibility.

How to reduce the need to veto

  • Delegating decision authority to a team (as in consensus decisions) or to an individual (when decision authority is delegated) is best done when the leader who has the authority is confident the team or person thinks the way they do about making decisions for the organization. Since no one can read minds, leaders should always tell their teams how and why they make their decisions. Let people understand your thought process. Share the values and priorities you use when weighing the options. When a team understands the ministry’s strategies and values, how the leader interprets those, and the amount of risk the leader is comfortable with, their decisions will be less likely to be overruled.
  • As the team leader, be involved in the decision process and let your concerns be known as soon as they arise. Define the characteristics of a good decision at the outset, and if it is a lengthy process, get periodic updates on how the process is going. If the line of thought is heading in a direction you can’t support or are worried about, this is the time to ask for more research or to amend the parameters of what a good decision looks like. You don’t want anyone wasting time unnecessarily on options that ultimately won’t be approved by you.
  • If you know there is a category of decisions that you are particularly concerned about, keep these decisions as yours to make. Instead of a group decision, involve the group in a consultation process so you still get a broad range of input and good thinking. This way everyone knows up front which decisions are yours and which are shared. A good practice described in Executive Teams is for the team leader to inform the team when a topic is first raised whether they are making the decision, consulting with you so you can make the decision, or if you are informing them of a decision you have already made.

How to reduce the negative consequences of a veto

  • The worst thing is to veto a decision when staff members have no idea that you are prepared to veto decisions. Although you hope never to have to use it, it is only fair to tell the team that the possibility exists. Assure them that you will always explain your rationale each time.
  • If you do have to veto a decision, use it as a learning experience for the team. What factors did they miss or which priorities did they order differently?

An alternative to a veto

Rather than vetoing a decision, if the downside is fairly limited you could agree to accept it as an exception or a one-off and not as a precedent. Set a time limit for how long it will stay in place or implement the decision on a pilot basis so you can test it out. Both of these strategies reduce the long term effects of a bad decision. Use this situation as a teaching opportunity to explain why you are concerned about the decision and perhaps set a policy to address whatever was missed in the decision making process so it won’t come up again.

Conclusion

The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 met to consider whether or not to veto Paul’s decision to convert Gentiles without making them abide by Jewish rituals. There was a real chance they could have overturned Paul’s practice, but they discerned a fresh way that God was at work and ended up supporting his decision, although they did make it conditional (thus demonstrating that they had the authority to overrule Paul if they had chosen to do so). This example shows that a veto should not be used without careful consideration of why the other decision isn’t a good one. Never veto anything without deep consideration of the issues.

On the other hand, Paul’s letters are filled with examples where he is overturning decisions that local churches have made and telling them what to do differently (often related to Judaizers and internal church discipline) because he has a deeper understanding of the principles and issues involved than the church leaders apparently had. He protected the church and its mission by using his apostolic authority to correct bad decisions.

In the end, you owe it to your ministry to never allow it to do anything that will impair its ability to fulfill its mission.

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