Leaders Go Last

Conventional thinking is that leaders should go first, and our language reflects that belief: leaders chart the course, they blaze new trails, they model the way, they position themselves at the front of the pack, and they lead by example. People “lead an organization by being the face of it”; organizations assign “team leaders” as the ones who are accountable; and we “lead” efforts, initiatives, and organizations when we are put in charge of them. And we expect that the best leaders will hold themselves to the highest standards, take responsibility for errors, and never expect their followers to do things that they themselves wouldn’t do—further examples of “going first.”

However, sometimes there’s a real benefit to going last as a leader.

A few examples can underscore the point about going last. The best leaders, taking a cue from the concept of “servant leadership,” put their followers’ needs before their own. A good captain takes care of passengers first and, if necessary, “goes down with the ship.” In values-driven organizations, senior executives will ensure that staff compensation and bonuses are paid out first.

There are any number of simple (though symbolically powerful) ways that we can “go last” as leaders:

  • Make an extra effort to provide visibility and recognition to your team members when they do a great job—especially to your own boss.
  • Take one of the bad parking spaces, not the best one reserved for VIPs.
  • Sit somewhere other than the head of the table.
  • Roll up your sleeves and take the least desirable part of the job yourself.
  • Show up “in the trenches,” or on a Saturday, when your team is struggling.
  • Use “we” instead of “I” except in situations such as, “I’m the one who made that mistake.”

Once you think about the value of “going last,” you’ll find lots of opportunities to do so—and doing so will send a powerful message about your values and intentions as a leader. What followers most want is to be part of something that has a higher purpose; that recognizes them for their contributions and value as a person; and that has outcomes that are beneficial to all, not just the leaders. (As business consultants, we have had to point out to clients more than once that “raise our stock price twenty points” may not be as energizing a goal to the broader organization as it is to the senior executive team.)

There is one specific instance of “going last” that’s worth addressing, because it may not be as obvious as some of the examples above—but the potential upside is even more exciting. And that is going last in meetings.

As leaders, we feel it’s our job to set the meeting agenda, lead the discussion, facilitate the dialogue, and drive to the conclusions. While the leader is ultimately accountable for ensuring an effective meeting, sometimes the best way to get that outcome is, paradoxically, by NOT being the person who speaks first or most.

If it’s your meeting, consider some non-traditional approaches. Assign one of your direct reports the job of developing the agenda and leading the meeting. (Some good leaders even rotate the meeting leader role among the team members, meeting to meeting.) Be aware of the gravity your title creates, and try not to be the first to make a suggestion or raise an idea. (Let’s face it: if you’re the boss and you say “Shall we serve Chinese food at that client event?” there’s not much upside to anyone else arguing for Italian or Mexican.) Work hard not to dominate the discussion: once you’ve taken it in a certain direction, that’s the direction it’s going.

Most of all, try to go last in your meetings. Let everyone else have their say—invite them to share perspectives, present ideas, and take the discussion to areas you may not have planned to go. Demonstrate curiosity. Ask open-ended questions to foster conversation. Adopt phrases such as “Can you tell us more about that?” and “What other points of view have we failed to consider?”

There are many advantages to “going last” in your meetings, including:

  • It gives your team the opportunity to take a crack first—which provides you with incredible insights into how they are thinking about the business, which you can then leverage to coach and develop them.
  • You provide them an opportunity to practice leading, in a safe environment—which stretches them and also gives them confidence and helps build their own “executive presence.”
  • Going last allows you to focus instead on playing a more Socratic role, which is the best way to see things differently and push the team to challenge assumptions and innovate.
  • If you go last, you can summarize what you’ve heard before you propose a conclusion, which means you can synthesize and validate.
  • Every once in a while, if you wait to go last you’ll learn something you didn’t know or hadn’t thought of before—so then you’ll look even smarter!

Much of the time we want our leaders to go first, but sometimes there’s a great benefit to going last. Please send us a note at newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com and share your experiences and insights.

“It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.”
— Nelson Mandela