A large part of the work we do involves leadership and communication, so it seems only natural that we talk about how important it is they link together. We happen to believe that a leader being the last one in the room to speak is the first and one of the most important leadership secrets. It may seem insignificant but practiced well, it can have an incredible impact.
This well-known quote from Nelson Mandela comes from a valuable leadership lesson he learned as a child when the Tribal King Jongintaba who raised him would often bring him along to meetings. Jongintaba would gather his men in a circle and wait until they had all spoken before adding his own views. As a young man, Nelson learned that it’s the chief’s job to build consensus, not tell people what to do.
Let that thought sink in for a moment.
A Leader’s Job is to Build Consensus
A lot of us in leadership positions feel great pressure to have all the answers. How many of you regularly begin a meeting voicing your opinion about the subject at hand and then opening up the floor to your colleagues for their input? You likely do so because you feel that as a leader, it’s your responsibility to ‘lead’ the conversation and reassure your team that ‘you’ve got this’.
What we’re saying is that it’s NOT your job to have all the answers. Your job is to look after your people in such a way that they feel comfortable and confident in not only offering solutions but debating one another to get the best possible result. Studies show the most effective teams debate with one another. Your job, as Mandela learned, is to build consensus because that is where you’ll realize the benefit of the unique talent and power around the table. And there will be no need to sell a solution to the team because they’ve already aligned themselves.
Group Think vs. Group Strength
The problem in you speaking first with your perspective is that it sets up the room for ‘group think’ because people will always tend to focus on the first thing that’s said during a meeting and build from there. Each participant will give their comments relative to what was said first, and you’ll end up with a compromised solution.
Journalist Richard Stengel who worked with Mandela on his autobiography ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, actually got to see the approach in action during meetings when Nelson would listen to what everyone else had to say, and then summarize the points that had been made at the end of the meeting before offering his own. This way he could guide the decision in the direction he wanted.
“It is wise to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their idea.”
Leadership expert Simon Sinek often speaks about this tactic as well saying, “You don’t agree or disagree or give away what you’re thinking- but rather, you take input, and you ask questions to better understand where their perspective comes from. At the end of it, not only do you make everyone else feel heard, but you also get the benefit of all of their thinking.”
What Does it Look Like to Speak Last?
1. Address the Challenge at Hand
As succinctly as you can, outline what the challenge or situation is that you are all here to address but use objective language and stay away from attaching any personal opinion.
2. Open the Floor to Conversation
Go around the room and call on each team member to weigh in with their thoughts then let the conversation go where it will. Refrain from saying or doing anything to indicate what you’re thinking. As Simon says (pardon the pun), don’t nod in agreement or disagreement. Just be present and listen.
3. Ask Questions for Clarification
The only thing you’re allowed to do before everyone has weighed in is to ask clarifying questions. Just make sure they’re open-ended like “Why do you feel this way?” or “How would your solution look?” You want to get as much understanding of their perspective as possible.
And once you’ve asked a question, resist the urge to answer it or expand on it yourself. Don’t try to fill the silence.
4. Summarize What You’ve Heard
Once everyone has had a chance to be heard and to ask and answer questions, it should be reasonably clear what the group is leaning towards as a solution. Now you are allowed your time.
Begin by summarizing what you’ve heard. Then state your position, and either confirm and support where they’ve landed, or provide direction if required, fully informed by the conversation.
Remember, you’re here to build consensus, not tell your team what to do.
It's harder than it looks, but speaking last is an approach that builds trust and respect. It takes discipline and self-control, but it demonstrates you believe that what the others in the room have to say is important and you want to hear it first before you weigh in. It gives the team a chance to grow into leaders who feel comfortable sharing their opinions with one another.
To say that a person feels listened to means a lot more than just their ideas getting heard.
It's a sign of respect. It makes people feel valued. — Deborah Tannen, Georgetown University
I remind myself every morning: Nothing I say this day will teach me anything.
So, if I’m going to learn, I must do it by listening. — Larry King, CNN