Okay, if you've been reading my thoughts for any length of time then you may recognize the seeming juxtaposition between this title and the subject of one of my previous thoughts. But stay with me, this thought is something different.

I've previously shared thoughts about how the best leaders are the ones who sit back and listen rather than blurting out an opinion or sharing what they think before they hear all the facts. That last part of the previous sentence is the key. Before they hear all the facts. And I still believe that to be true. Those leaders who exhibit the strongest character are oftentimes known for their quiet, listening spirit. It's not easy to do and that's one reason why so many leaders today don't practice this behavior. But I've digressed as this is not the purpose of today's thought and this is a different idea entirely.

The fallacy of speaking last

I have heard it said in other contexts that leaders shouldn't share their thoughts or opinions until after everyone else has had a chance to speak. The proposed explanation for this blatant inaction stemmed from the supposition that others would not feel comfortable stating their opinion, particularly in opposition, after a "leader" had spoken. On the surface this might seem like a valid explanation. Certainly a leader's words carry weight and a sense of finality that no other voice in the room could carry. And this might suggest the result would be a stifling of other's views, especially the dissenters. But this is entirely and totally incorrect. If anything this behavior encourages the continuation of this view. Simply by not sharing an opinion with those around you or not speaking up as a leader until after everyone else has spoken carries several harmful and dangerous behaviors. Let me explain what I mean.

Training others when to be silent

The first and potentially largest problem with this way of thinking is the inevitable silencing effect of others. When everyone is aware the leader is going to speak last they understand once the leader has spoken the conversation is over and no further discussion is to be had. In this situation the leader has now trained everyone that once they have spoken this is the end of the conversation, and this stifles constructive differences, healthy debate, and exploring alternative outcomes.

Training others not to bother speaking

The second dangerous problem stemming from a leader who always speaks last is a lack of discussion or debate. When everyone understands the leader is going to not speak until the end they will be far more fearful to share their ideas and their thoughts. You might think this is counter-intuitive but when a person is not extremely confident in their opinion or when a person knows they are going to say something the leader might disagree with they will clam up rather than speak up. No one likes to be wrong and no one likes to be the first to share a negative or different opinion than what they suppose the leader might share later.

The right time for a leader to speak

Now that we've taken a few minutes and explored the negative aspects when a leader speaks last it's important for us to consider when is the right time for a leader to speak. There is a right time (just as there is a wrong time). And just to make things extra confusing this right time is not always the same time. Instead of attempting to identify the exact moments let's instead look for a few patterns to help us.  We can explore some scenarios and use those as a guide for other interactions.

When the room is silent

Okay we'll start with an easy one. When no one is speaking and no one knows how to start a conversation this is a perfect opportunity for a leader to speak up and start the discussion. Now, this is an interesting one, because it's not always when the leader speaks but also what and how the leader says something. If a leader begins a conversation with the wrong emphasis or makes a bold "end of discussion" type of statement then the conversation will be over before it ever began. However, a strong leader is able to encourage dialog and even debate with an opening statement.

When the debate is hot and heavy

This is the second and potentially most critical time for a good leader to jump into the discussion. Rather than sitting back and waiting for everyone to share their opinions and thoughts, a good leader joins in. This does two things for the conversation. First, the leader is now actively engaged in things and everyone understands that debate is encouraged and respected, and that dissension is welcome. Second, the leader is able to share their thoughts and test their views and grow in their own thinking and understanding. This type of communication fosters growth and progress for everyone.

When consensus is being reached

The last guide we'll look at for when a leader should speak is a tricky one. This can present in two very different cases. In one scenario the room is coming to a conclusion which everyone (including the leader) agrees is appropriate. At this point we are indeed nearing the end of a debate and the leader might be closing the conversation and speaking last. But in an opposite situation the room might be coming to an incorrect conclusion (for a number of factors, not limited to a second or third outspoken individual). This is consensus but not necessarily correct consensus or even unanimous consensus. Here again is a crucial time for a leader to recognize this and to speak up. The leader may simply redirect the conversation to the quieter voices, or may voice opposition direction and allow the quiet people to "join" in the disagreement.

As you can see there are a number of reasons why a leader should never sit back and speak last. Speaking last destroys a culture, reinforces negative behavior, and stifles collaboration. The next time you're engaged in a discussion consider these points and focus on encouraging the right outcome. Create an environment with lively debate, strengthened views, and a culture of equality where every voice is valuable and even disagreement is healthy.