Leadership Advice

To lead or to follow: What role should leaders play in important gatherings?

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

When news organizations plan workshops on improving culture, communication, conflict resolution, change or other aspects of organizational life, managers sometimes struggle with one well-intentioned question:

 “What role, if any, should I play? Is there a chance my presence will keep people from speaking candidly? Might things go better without me there?”

I appreciate that they recognize their potential power to change the dynamics in the room. The presence of a powerful person can cause others to step back or self-censor. But think again.

The absence of leaders during sessions on important issues can send the wrong message — that they’re uninterested in the topic at hand or unwilling to hear criticism.

Here’s what I believe about programs or workshops designed to talk about what organizations should stand for, how they are reckoning with problems or creating a stronger future: 

It’s better for managers to be there — but to do everything possible to put people at ease. 

  • Be transparent about why you’re attending. Tell people from the start that you’re there to learn, work and plan alongside people.
  • Participate fully as a colleague, not as the person in charge. Let the facilitator lead the way. Be fully present; don’t make just a cameo or spend time scrolling through phone messages and texts. You’ll be letting people down — very publicly.
  • Listen more than you speak. If you speak first in answer to questions or during brainstorming or team exercises, you may close off discussion, even without knowing it. Your words carry greater weight than others, so don’t let them overpower the group.
  • Be non-defensive. If there are breakout groups or conversations in which people are critical of the status quo, don’t take it as a personal affront. Ask for more information. Be there to add, not subtract from the candor.
  • Serve as a myth-buster. One of the most important roles you can play is to clear the air on misunderstandings. Someone may suggest a course of action, to which another will reply, “We’ve been told we can’t do that.” Sometimes that’s true. But too often I’ve discovered that these are “urban legends” that haunt an organization. It’s one of the key reasons your presence is valuable, because you not only discover a rule you never knew you made, but you can let people know it’s not a rule at all. You should establish this “myth buster” role with the facilitator in advance of the session, so that person can call on you to say, “Is that the case?” or “Is there any flexibility here?”
  • Follow up. Workshops can bring people together, build connections, solutions and hope. But when they’re over, people often dash back to their assigned duties. They get busy, time passes, and soon people are saying, “That was another one of those events where we talk about change, offer ideas, get our hopes up, and then nothing happens.” Don’t let that be the case. Your job at the end of the session is to plan “next steps.” Think short term: quick wins you can easily do. Think longer term: changes that require more work, participation, and investment.
  • Communicate. Make that over-communicate. Let people know about those next steps and when to expect them. Then stay on the case. Provide regular updates on work that’s in progress.

Is there ever a time when managers should stay out of workshops? I can envision some circumstances in which people are eager to work things out among themselves on issues and would prefer their leaders join them after some of the initial work has been done. That should be an explicit understanding that everyone agrees to. 

Never assume people know the reasons you’re present for or absent from a gathering. Let them in on the back story and rationale.

Remember, as best as you can, be part of the learning, the sharing, and the reason the session wasn’t just talk — there were constructive action steps that followed.


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