I’ve been reflecting on some leadership questions of late. When is the right time to let others lead? Should I step aside for the betterment of the team? Will stepping aside help to create new opportunities for emerging leaders? Or should I continue to lead the way?
For many years I’ve been calling all the shots and being in the driver’s seat for making key decisions and communicating important information. I have found that I’ve become pretty good at it, and I enjoy doing it. So naturally, I’ll step up and lead whenever possible. That’s makes me a leader, right? Maybe not.
“Great leaders know when to step aside.”
~ Tara Jaye Frank
I’ve worked with many clients who manage other people. They often complain about their disappointment when their direct reports remain silent in meetings or defer to them to answer questions. When I have observed these situations, it often is the case that the boss (or leader) is hogging all the oxygen in the room and speaking first and frequently. This gives little or no opportunity for their direct report to lead the discussion. Perhaps part of leadership maturity is knowing when to remain silent and allow others to have the floor.
I recently experienced the beauty of this leadership awareness during my work on the planning committee for the 2019 Peace and Conflict Resolution Conference. Presented by the Rotary Club of Greenville in South Carolina, this public conference is a major service project and reflects our commitment as Rotarians to peace and the prevention of violence. Our committee has about 25 Rotary members volunteering their time, talent and treasury to create something great for our community. Perhaps the very best part of working on this committee is my new connection with Teresa Miller. She has become a good friend as well as a fellow Rotarian. I have also begun to mentor her as she develops her marketing skills and confidence. I see great potential in her. She has a strong value-centered vision, passion for the work, a strong skill set, effective leadership style, and a proven track record to get amazing things done quickly. But what I didn’t see was the personal confidence to match that strong skill set. So, I set out to mentor and coach her (with her permission, of course).
“Lead from the back, and let others believe they are in front.”
~ Nelson Mandela
I encouraged Teresa to raise her hand for leadership positions and to volunteer to give presentations and interviews about the conference. Her natural tendency was to defer to people with more experience, title or authority. She preferred to contribute “behind the scenes” rather than stepping out in front. To get her comfortable, we did a few things together in public, like teaming up for a five minute presentation update at a Rotary club meeting. Then I conveniently could not make another major presentation at the Chamber of Commerce, forcing her to step up to the plate and do it herself. She wow’d them.
Then came the TV interviews. Having never done televised interviews, Teresa didn’t want to do them. But I pushed her. And then she began to push herself. She agreed to do the interviews so long as someone else went with her. She did her homework and was well prepared. She was not going to “wing it” like many over-confident leaders might do. I was not at the TV station when she did her first interview, but got to see the video. First thing I noticed was that she sat in the outside chair. She gave the prominent seat to the other person, Vikas Srivastava, one of the keynote speakers for our conference. Watch Teresa’s performance on this first TV interview on February 25, 2019. See if you can pick up on her hesitation and nervousness in her body language, facial expressions and verbal responses. Overall, Teresa did very well and it was a fine interview. But there was work to be done.
The next television appearance was about one month later. Teresa was still nervous about this interview, but now had experience to draw from. It wasn’t her first time on TV. She had some ideas about how she wanted to improve. She invited me to go on the show with her and be interviewed by co-hosts, Jack and Megan. To be honest, I was kind of excited to be invited as this would be the first television appearance in my new city of Greenville, SC. But deep down, I knew that Teresa could do it by herself. Her knowledge and passion for the topic of peace and conflict resolution would be enough to carry on a good conversation with the TV anchors.
I agreed to hold her hand and work along side her to prepare for this media interview. We spent a few hours working on the messaging, developing a list of questions and key points to submit in advance to the TV station. And then we role played and practiced. I put her in the “hot seat” and she practiced her responses. She was clearly getting stronger and more confident. I made the decision to put her in the seat on the inside, closest to the TV hosts. This was the premiere position. I wanted her to take the lead, not because I couldn’t do the job, but because it was her time to lead.
It was exciting to be at the TV station. Lots of colors, lights, cameras, cords, switchboards, and free food! Other guests were starting to gather at the station for their five minutes in the spotlight. And I began to sense that I should let Teresa go solo. I knew she was ready to fly. In the end, we felt it would be inappropriate for me to back out at the last second, so I took the second seat, on the outside, and allowed Teresa to take the lead in the conversation. I remained silent for the first 100 seconds of the interview. It was awkward and almost unnatural for me not to speak, but I’m so proud that I didn’t jump in and take over.
Watch our interview on April 2, 2019:
- Leaders don’t have to dominate the conversation to demonstrate their leadership.
- Leaders develop, coach, and mentor others, not just seize all the opportunity and glory for themselves.
- Leaders take risks with other people. They are tolerant of shortcomings when their real goal is the personal and professional development of others.
- Leaders invest their time and energy into mentoring others – lots of others.
- Leaders share their knowledge, experience, wisdom and opinions with others. They also remain open and humble to learning from others. Confident leaders are open to the value of “reverse mentoring.”
- Leaders are not driven by ego, but by purpose. And part of that purpose must be the development of the next generation of leaders.
- Leaders need to know when to let go, when to soften the grip on control, and allow others to lead and contribute.
The next time you get invited to do something that you’ve done a lot of in the past (e.g., important presentation, TV interview, panel discussion, client meeting or pitch, conference keynote, invitation to join a board of directors, a stretch assignment, etc.), consider stepping aside and creating an opportunity for someone else. And don’t just delegate it and abandon them. Stick by their side and guide them through the process to increase the probability of their success. If you do this, you will evolve as a leader and as a human being.