Sometimes the Leader Goes Last

business people in a line with the leader at the end

In creating culture on purpose, leaders have to lead, right?

Right. But leading doesn’t always mean going first.

Of course leaders have to exemplify the culture they’re trying to create. If they want their people to be honest, they have to be honest. If they want their organization to be nimble, they have to be nimble. If they want rapid innovation, they have to normalize failure by admitting their own mistakes openly, publicly, and frequently.

If they’re not there yet — if, for example, they want rapid innovation but have a hard time accepting failure — they must at least be working toward being the kind of leader the vision requires.

But sometimes leaders need to go last.

  • When creative ideas are the goal. If the leader goes first in a brainstorming session, that first idea is likely to inform everything that comes after. Great ideas that come at the problem from an entirely different direction may never be voiced.
  • When important decisions are on the table. If the leader gives his viewpoint first, the rest of the team is likely to go, “Well, OK then,” and that’s the end of the discussion. Other options may be available, but they won’t be explored.
  • When customer satisfaction is at stake. If the leader isn’t in daily contact with customers, all that is at stake may not get surfaced if the leader speaks first.
  • When employee empowerment is the issue. The leader’s big-picture view isn’t the only view needed to empower people to do their best work.
  • When diversity is at stake. Each person’s age, gender, ethnic origins, and lifestyle give them a unique point of view. A white female leader in her 50s can’t speak from the perspective of a male person of color in his 30s.

When we facilitate team meetings, we usually meet first with the leader to discuss goals and processes. That also gives us a chance to tell the leader to let others respond to our prompts first.

When the leader nevertheless goes first (because leaders lead, right?), we have 15 different elegant ways of saying, “That’s good, thanks! But since we’re all here, let’s talk about that some more.” If the team is meeting without us, we can help by assigning the order in which team members should speak.

In our deadline-driven environment, teams often arrive at the wrong decision quickly. Often the best way to do so is to let the leader go first.

What you can do today

If you are the leader, open the meeting, set up the question or issue, and then sit back. Let everyone else go first.

If you are a team member, take a chance by asking for more discussion when people quickly follow the leader’s point of view without question.

Whatever your role, develop your listening skills.

Questions for reflection

Leaders: What’s hard for you about letting everyone else go first? What benefits can you envision? Are those benefits worth the effort of holding back to hear others’ opinions first? Why or why not?

Team members: What’s hard for you about speaking up?

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