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René Van Someren

Principal-Consultant Problem

Principals can/may not take refuge behind consultants

Posted 5 April, 2021

See also: René Van Someren's blog.

There are limits to the expertise of even the very best leaders. Obviously, it is wise of them to base certain actions and decisions on advice of others.

Ideally, given advice is formulated such that the principal understands it, but also knows and understands the facts and circumstances on which the advice and conclusions are based. After careful consideration, the principal should not doubt that the advice is accurate and exhaustive and the principal must concur in the conclusions drawn.

Unless all those conditions are (fully) met, the principal should not base actions and/or decisions on such advice. This is not merely a professional requirement or a moral duty, but in many cases it is also a legal obligation.

In practice, advice is often hardly, or not at all checked. Some principals are too embarrassed to admit that they do not understand the advice, thinking that they should be able to do so. In many other cases, principals just do not bother to check if the advice is accurate and exhaustive.

Apart from laziness and lack of time (wrong priorities/bad time management), some principals are so deferential to certain advisors that they blindly trust and follow their advice.

Many leaders or administrators take refuge behind their consultants to displace responsibility and accountability for their actions and decisions to those consultants.

In doing so, they aim to functionally, legally and morally disengage themselves from their own actions and decisions by pointing at their consultants, should things go wrong.

Consultants do not know everything. Furthermore, their expertise is often limited to part of the matter on which the principal must act or decide. Careful decision-making often requires weighing out more interests than those to which the given advice relates.

Of course, there is also the well-known ‘Agency Problem’ which arises when an agent, such as a consultant serves other interests than the principal’s interests. This does not always directly or clearly lead to disadvantage to the principal, but it almost always manifests itself in violating moral and/or legal standards.

For example, some call themselves ‘consultant’ but are in fact salespersons with one goal: transferring as much money as possible from their principal’s pockets into their own pockets or in the pockets of the companies they represent.

There are also consultants who unethically pursue certain results for their principals. Examples of this in the financial and legal sector are almost proverbial. Merciless actions may yield results that principals may experience as positive, even though those principals would rather not know how those results were achieved, hoping that their ignorance will indemnify them from complicity. They often do not to realise that they are also complicit to such actions by failing to carefully and critically check and judge given advice. To the pertaining consultants the appreciation and other rewards from their principals tend to outweigh the moral burden and legal risks that they took upon themselves. Negligent principals enable and feed this.

Moral, apt leadership requires transparency and careful weighing all interests on which actions and decisions are based. When there is doubt about the accuracy or exhaustiveness of certain advice, or if it is unclear on which facts and circumstances the advice is based or how conclusions were drawn, it is advisable to mark time and look into the matter further, or again (second opinion) before acting or deciding.

René Van Someren’s personal website is:

René Van Someren's blog


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