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Why should leaders always speak last? – CEO Reflections #11

Updated September 23, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

Perhaps you recognize this saying from a video, article or magazine. Perhaps it’s the first time you are hearing about it. Over my 15 year long international leadership career I have participated in countless meetings, ranging from informal team chats to management team meetings and board reviews. This experience has left me with a very strong belief that leaders generally, if not always, should speak last. There are plenty of great reasons for this as I will explain to you in this article, and listening to the opinion of others are cornerstones of both democratic and transformational leadership.

If you are in a hurry, here it is in a nutshell.

Why should leaders always speak last?
If a leader speaks last, it encourages all others to put their opinions and suggestions on the table. More ideas and thoughts will surface and stimulate discussion which can lead to even more ideas. This process can be impaired if the leader speaks first as people are generally careful with disagreeing with their leader. Furthermore, if the leader has already stated a solution to a problem, many will feel that there is no use to provide a different suggestion since the leader most likely has made up his or her mind.

Let us invest some time in the background and underlying reasons for this since an increased and deeper understanding will make it easier to take this in. In the end, I will connect this to a historical world war two event showing you how leaders speaking last is engrained in navy doctrine.

Reasons why leaders should always speak last

There are many various reasons why the leader should always speak last to the highest extent possible. To be honest, there are exceptions to this, but they are incredibly few so let’s get back to that later.

Let us start out with an example to show how bad things can go. Consider a problem-solving discussion with you, 7-8 of your colleagues and your boss. You have gathered to discuss how to increase the company profits due to recent pressure from the board. Your boss starts by explaining how the profit has dropped and ends with saying: “That’s why we need to reduce costs.” How will the team react?

The team will now likely start thinking about how to reduce the costs, or even worse, they will wait for the boss to tell them how the costs should be reduced. By stating this short sentence, the boss has essentially ensured the following:

  • The reasons for the drop in profit will probably not be discussed
  • Further analysis and fact finding concerning the profit drop will probably stop which prevents discovery of vital information
  • Solutions unrelated to cost savings will probably not be brought up or even thought of

If the leader continues to explain how costs should be reduced, the problem is made even worse. By stating how and perhaps who and when this should be done, the leader has ensured the following:

  • The team will feel less accountable since they are merely doing what they are told to do
  • Ideas and suggestions on how to move forward will not be put on the table

This is commanding or autocratic leadership behavior and leaders who behave like this very often do it repeatedly and over long time. The effect of such behavior is devastating for the individuals, the team and the business or organization that this team is running. The leader is removing the opportunity to hear ideas and suggestions from an entire team that have experience and perspectives that could contribute to improving the situation.

I have even seen a leader showing prewritten minutes of meeting before starting that actual meeting. The document was filled with what she considered likely outcomes of the discussions, and would you know it, the discussion seldom strayed off what was already in the minutes. That is not just directive, but also pacesetting leadership, detrimental in this case.

A leader should always choose his or her words wisely or the team might be accidentally pushed towards a certain conclusion – crippling their decision making capabilities.

Leaders should speak last to maximize input

The leader is normally the boss. In most cultures, people want to avoid disagreeing with their boss. Few will actively suggest a contradictory approach than their boss, and even fewer will dare to tell their boss that he or she is wrong.
Let us assume there is no fear for a second. Let us assume that the leader is great and everybody in the team respect him or her. Then you are likely to believe that the leader knows best and is right, so why would you suggest something else. Additionally, people might be worried to mention their ideas after having heard what they feel is likely going to be the best idea anyway.

Fear and putting the leader on a pedestal are just two reasons for the team members to limit their input in this case, there are more reasons out there, believe me.

Enable all perspectives by speaking last

All team members have different experience and competency. If the leader speaks last, all this experience and competency will bring out various perspectives that the leader could never think of. The team members have different backgrounds, skills, characteristics and often different formal training and education. At the time of the meeting, the team members are also likely to have different emotions.

All this contributes to having different perspectives. Some people will consider the glass half empty, and some will consider it half full to make it simple. It is not either-or here though, so if you have 10 team members, you are likely to get at least a hand full of perspectives on the topic being discussed. This idea of participation is one of the core points in democratic leadership as well as in transformational leadership.

To connect back to our business example above, here are some perspectives that might have emerged had the leader spoken last:

  • The head of sales might have suggested to increase the revenue in order to drive profit
  • Someone could have suggested increasing cost by having longer opening hours which could lead to increased sales and higher profit
  • A team member could have stated that the profit drop was temporary and related to the season. Cutting costs would jeopardize the upcoming month which is the busiest time of year
  • The colleague with statistical and financial knowledge could have offered to analyze the situation more so additional information would be available

I think you know what I mean. Countless of additional information could have come up since people think differently and have different frames of mind. By telling people how it is and what to do, the leader willingly or unwillingly pushed the team down a certain course of action.

Empower your team

By not speaking up, the leader is turning to the team for solving the problem. No solution is suggested that everyone can simply “go with”. Rather than this problem being the problem of the board and the leader, it is becoming a situation the team must handle. This will force as well as enable the team members to think and to act. It will stimulate a discussion among the team members with idea generation, creative thinking and courage to suggest things.

Empowerment can be a very strong force and it is often mentioned as a central aspect of leadership and reaching productivity in a team. So, the leader should speak last to squeeze that extra level of empowerment out of the team.

Speaking last increases accountability

If team members aren’t empowered, they will probably also feel less accountable. If a leader tells his or her followers what to do, they will be able to disconnect themselves from the actions if they want to. The leader walks directly into situations such as:

  • “I knew from the beginning that this wasn’t going to work..”
  • “It’s not my fault, I’m simply doing what I am told..”

This will lead to poor execution, blame games and low motivation. Imagine if these team members have teams of their own and push the same behavior downwards – you will have an entire organization without creativity and innovation if you’re not careful.

When people feel accountable, they will do whatever they can to save the day. After all, they will feel that a lack of solution is their fault giving them a personal stake in this.

Leaders should speak last to improve team confidence

Let them team suggest things, discuss things and evaluate different decisions. Let them be an active part of planning and deciding – this will do magic for their confidence as a team as well as their trust in each other. Bear in mind that sometimes the leader is unavailable, that’s when you want the confident, empowered and accountable team who can act in the void of the absent leader.

Sometimes it will be hard to sit quiet. We all have an ego and keeping silent when you feel you have some great ideas bubbling inside isn’t the easiest thing. Wait a while, if someone else comes up with those very same ideas that you had, it will make your job as a leader easier. The ownership will be stronger in the team, and so will the confidence in both the individuals and the team as a group. No need to mention that you also thought of that, despite any possible temptation to do so.

What if no one else starts talking then?

By now you might be thinking: “This sounds good and all, but what if everybody sits quiet with the leader?” The job of the leader is not to just sit and wait for things to happen. The leader’s job is to monitor the situation, follow the flow of the discussion and stimulate the talks. The leader must be a catalyst in general. “So, the leader isn’t supposed to speak last then?” you might think now. Yes, you are indeed correct. The leader isn’t gagged, it’s just that the leader should remain silent on opinions, solutions etc. Leaders should comment on decisions, suggestions, ideas etc. last, but don’t take it literally. The leader is allowed to talk but should consider when and what to say with the above tips in mind. So dear leaders, take a step back, do not be the center of attention and instead guide the others to talking and throwing ideas out there.

Let’s list a few ideas if you do end with a group sitting quietly and cueing you to speak last already in the beginning of your meeting. Consider the following suggestions in order to stimulate and facilitate this type of team session:

  • Ask open ended questions to get people going
  • Get the discussion on the problem description going by asking for input
  • Give people a minute to think and then go around the table forcing everyone to say something
  • Ask people to clarify if they are too short in their speech
  • Deploy active listening and be an empathetic leader – read the team
  • Be the devils advocate – provoke with stating opposites if the group get locked down in one solution or agree too fast. “What will happen if we can’t do that?” or “What if we do the opposite, what will happen?”. This can create a wider spectrum of circumstances and ideas to be considered

I also suggest you read our article on coaching leadership which will help you to develop your team.

Pitfalls to avoid with speaking last

Remember, we are talking about a step back, not retreating from leadership or letting the team do what they want, that would be Laissez-faire leadership.
While you take a step back, please ensure that no one else takes over completely. The advantages above is about getting the perspectives and ideas of the whole team, not just from the most extrovert person in the team who might dominate the conversation if given the chance to. Moderate the room and ensure that everyone participates.

Why leaders should speak last: Avoid only one person speaking and leading the discussion.

Secondly, make sure the discussion can continue also after you have spoken your mind as a leader. At all cost, avoid people getting the perception that the leader speaks at the end. This would insinuate that the leader’s final comment will be the end of the discussion, regardless of anything else.

Long term things to consider

If you are the leader of a group where you constantly need to mind when you  speak and how you speak in order to not shut down the forum, then you need to consider your long term approach. A leader needs to grow an open and honest climate, and if you have problems with fear or lack of confidence among your team members you have not been successful in getting the right climate in place.

Do you constantly need to go out of your way to get your team to talk, interact, make suggestions and be accountable? Then simply being the last to speak will not be enough. You need to reflect on your leadership and how you change yourself and your team in a more profound way. The methods above are about one out of many angles in leadership. Speaking last is not a miraculous cure to poor team performance in itself.
The way of working described above have strong commonalities with a Servant Leadership Style, please read our separate article on that for more inspiration in case you need to revamp your approach as a leader.

Historical example: The Psilander affair during WWII

A friend of mine that is interested in World War II mentioned this story from the Swedish Navy a few years back. In Sweden it is referred to as the Psilander affair.

January 21st, 1940, Sweden bought four destroyers from the Italian Navy in order to increase the capabilities of the Swedish Navy in these years of conflict. The Swedish crews travelled to Italy in order to take over the ships and sail them back to Sweden.

March 27th, the Swedish flags were raised on the four war ships and the plan was to start the journey back to Sweden April 13th. Germany attacked Denmark and Norway April 9th, 1940, changing the situation for the crews significantly. The trip back to Sweden would now have to go through seas where a military campaign was being executed.

The ships left La Spezia on April 14th and started the long and perilous journey to their new home. On April 20th, they received a promise of free passage from the Royal Navy with the suggestion to take the route through the English Channel. However, the plan was for the destroyers to take the route via Ireland, then the Faroe Islands, then cross over the North Sea to the coast of Norway and continue to Gothenburg on the west coast of Sweden.

After some repairs on the way, the vessels arrived in Lisbon April 28th, but due to lack of fuel, they were stuck for a month, completing some repairs in the meantime.

May 10th, Germany attacked the Netherlands, Belgium and France, resulting in the English Channel being shut down.

On June 18th, the war cabinet in London was made aware of four Swedish destroyers leaving Ireland heading towards the Faroe Islands. The opportunity to seize the destroyers was allegedly discussed.

The destroyers approached the Faroe Islands on June 19th while the Royal Navy sent ships to surprise and seize the destroyers while anchored.

June 20th was to become a hectic day indeed. British ships deploy close to the Swedish force in the morning. By 07.15, the British commander arrives to the Swedish Flag ships and communicates an ultimatum stipulating that the British government has ordered the destroyers to be seized in order to “prevent” them from being captured by the German Kriegsmarine. The ultimatum demands evacuation and surrender within two and a half hours at which point the Swedish crews were to be transferred to England for further transportation to Sweden. Resistance or attempts to scuttle the ships would be met with “appropriate countermeasures”. Any attempts to contact Sweden would be prevented by force.

HMS Psilander, one of the involved Swedish destroyers. Source, see bottom of page.

The strength assessment was heavily in favor of the Royal Navy. The Swedish ships were low on fuel and water as well as positioned poorly in their anchored state, while the British ships were ready to fight with their people at action stations and superior fire power.

After the British officers leave, the Swedish officers are summoned for a meeting onboard the Swedish Flag ship. Now pause and let the severity of the situation soak in:

  • The navy officers are asked to surrender their ships which is something you simply don’t do
  • They cannot get in touch with their government during this situation
  • If they fight, they might pull their nation into the war, on the wrong side as well, simply by defending themselves

Not an easy decision to make.

After having reviewed the ultimatum in written form, the officers gathered for a decision meeting. This meeting was an advisory council where the force commander could seek the advice of junior officers, record the discussion but in the end make the decision himself. As required by navy protocol, the youngest and most junior officer should state his opinion to not be influenced by his more senior colleagues. As they went through all officers from the bottom up in terms of rank, they all turned out to have the same opinion – resistance was not the right way forward, instead the focus should be on political negotiations between the two countries.

The force commander replied in written form that he had no choice but to comply, while also stating his strongest objections to the actions of the Royal Navy – especially having been denied the opportunity to contact his own government.

After some minor sabotage to the vessels, the Swedes surrendered them to the English who started out with lowering the Swedish naval flags.

All the destroyers were returned to the Swedish  navy July 1st the same year. Costs for damages and lost equipment were paid by the British. Finally, on July 10th, the destroyers reached Swedish waters.

The meeting with the officers aboard the Swedish flag ship must have been intense. Imagine having the fate of your country in your hands – at least that must have been the feeling in the group. By following the rules of the Swedish Navy – which required that the top leader gave his opinion last, they ensured that any and all views could be brought up for discussion. In this case, they were all of the same opinion, but that doesn’t really matter. The process as such, the leader speaks last, is there for good reasons. If this is the way isolated navy officers are told to handle things, then perhaps there is a point to it. Please also note that in this example, the responsibility of making the final decision rested completely on the shoulders of the leader, not the team. Speaking last does not release the leader of the responsibility and the accountability, never forget that. This way of making decisions are typical democratic leadership, one of the best leadership styles there is.

Conclusions on leaders speaking last

Give the above a try if you are not already doing it. It will work if deployed properly and your team climate is at a basic level. Feel free to write a comment below in case you have a particularly difficult situation and would like some advice on it.

Read our articles on democratic leadership and servant leadership to find additional inspiration on empowerment and teamwork. I also recommend our article How can democratic leadership be effective?

Have you tried it with success? Please share your story in the comments section below so the rest of us can get inspired. Didn’t it work for you? Tell us the story below, perhaps we can help?

Source for the Psilander incident: https://sv.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psilanderaff%C3%A4ren (In Swedish, use google translate if needed, it worked for me. A Swedish speaking acquaintance double checked it of course!)                 

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