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A hidden lever of leadership

Most of the time, large meetings are tedious downloads from leadership. Sometimes they are participatory, but lack accountability and follow-through.

Rarely, they are an honest dialogue between leaders and the people who work for them which yields genuinely new and actionable strategy. Here’s how to hit that rare balance.

When most people think about leadership being demonstrated at a meeting, they visualize a single strong person–probably the most senior leader– speaking to the group in a galvanizing fashion. Charismatic, focused, compelling. In reality, however, this is rarely what is needed, and even when it is, it is rarely executed. Often the hope is that a meeting will be an opportunity for many people to step up, share insights, and have a role in the decisions made. But when meetings get large, the opportunities for people to participate in this way often (and unnecessarily) diminish.

Ideally, in many situations leaders and meeting organizers would prefer to see people walking away saying things like: “it was real leadership development,” “I feel much more connected to my peers,” or “we had lots of opportunity to influence the future direction.” Clearly, to achieve this kind of meeting, organizers need to cultivate other dimensions of leadership (beyond the charismatic presentation), and frame the goal more broadly than “get my vision across and get people’s buy-in.”

Desired BehaviourEnabling Process
Honesty of ParticipantsAssure anonymity in the feedback process
Honesty of LeaderCreate a safe process for formulating candid responses
InclusionProvide many opportunities for conversation in small groups, where everyone’s voice is equal.
Valuing everyone’s contributionIdentify the themes from all of these small group conversations and have the leader respond to them
TrustRepeat these feedback loops – where participants are able to be honest in giving their input, and the leader is able to be honest in responding to them
CollaborationUse small group discussions to work toward solutions
CreativityFocus on solutions, drive the generation of new ideas and proposals
OwnershipGenerate new ideas and solutions as a group, and prioritize them as a group

Tailor meeting design to objectives

Often, meetings are designed to “get across” certain information to the participants. But as we’ve seen in hundreds of large meetings, the most profound information that participants receive is about who the leader is, what kind of culture is tolerated and promoted, and how engaged they feel. The real opportunity is to design a meeting that allows the leader to model the desired kinds of leadership needed more broadly.

A leader can ask: Does the meeting design allow me to listen? Does it allow me to be candid and share and respond openly with the participants? Does it provide the opportunity for me to learn? To make adjustments?

“Leadership is not magnetic personality, that can just as well be a glib tongue. It is not ‘making friends and influencing people,’ that is flattery. Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to higher sights, the raising of a person’s performance to a higher standard, the building of a personality beyond its normal limitations.”

Peter F. Drucker
American management consultant, educator, and author

To realize and admit mistakes? And does it provide those opportunities for the participants as well?

If the answers are mostly ‘yes’, then full speed ahead. If they are mostly ‘no’, then it is time to explore options with the help of internal and external design experts. There are methods for safely and effectively engaging large groups, and they are not difficult.

Finally, there is no such thing as a “neutral design” in which the information being presented is the sole focus. How information is presented and processed makes a significant statement about who the leader is, how the organisation functions, and what is expected for the future. By attending to the process as carefully as the content, leaders can benefit their organisations and themselves. It is a hidden lever of leadership…

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A hidden lever of leadership

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