Leadership expert Simon Sinek has made a career out of explaining what makes good leaders great ones. When it comes to meetings, he has one big piece of advice to aspiring great leaders: Be a better listener by being the last one to speak your opinion in a meeting.
“The skill to hold your opinions to yourself until everyone has spoken does two things: One, it gives everybody else the feeling that they have been heard. It gives everyone else the ability to feel that they have contributed,” he explained in a speech. “And two, you get the benefit of hearing what everybody else has to think before you render your opinion.”
When you wait to hear what your team is going to say, you’re giving your team a chance to grow into leaders who can feel comfortable sharing their opinions with each other. It builds team morale and it builds more productive discussions because studies has proven that the best teams choose conflict over cohesion and debate each other.
Why Nelson Mandela spoke last in his meetings
Practicing Sinek’s advice doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not talking at all, but it does mean you’re only talking to gather and clarify information through follow-up questions and statements to your team. (Why do you think we should move in that direction? Am I understanding you right on this point?) That way, the meeting becomes a useful debate for everyone involved instead of a personal power trip to convey your own thoughts and opinions.
In a Tony Robbins podcast where Sinek further elaborated on the topic of speaking last, Sinek uses anti-apartheid revolutionary and President of South Africa Nelson Mandela as a case study of a leader who learned to speak last from watching Jongintaba, the tribal king who raised him. When Jongintaba held meetings, he would gather his men in a circle and wait until they had spoken to speak himself.
Richard Stengel, the journalist who worked with Mandela on his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” said that Mandela would practice this lesson in his own meetings later as a leader: “The chief’s job, Mandela said, was not to tell people what to do but to form a consensus. ‘Don’t enter the debate too early,’ he used to say.” In meetings where Stengel witnessed Mandela’s management style in action, Stengel said Mandela would hear his colleagues’ opinions and end meetings by summarizing their points and offering his own, “subtly steering the decision in the direction he wanted without imposing it.”
“It is wise,” Mandela said according to Stengel, “to persuade people to do things and make them think it was their own idea.”