Leading From Behind: Enable Your Team By Doing Less

Leading From Behind: Enable Your Team By Doing Less

I was in a meeting the other day. My team and I had gotten together to discuss the next steps in tackling a giant project ahead of us. I already knew what the outcome of the meeting was going to be. But rather than dictate the plan, I set myself up in the corner of the room and listened.

I wanted to hear their thought process. I wanted to hear the concerns with going one way or another. But most importantly, I wanted my team to reach the conclusion by themselves.

Why, you ask?

Think about the last time you had a great idea and went to tell someone, only to have them share the exact same idea with you before you had a chance to say it.

Remember how that took the wind out of your sails? Remember how your idea doesn’t seem quite as special anymore? Remember feeling your motivation starting to melt away?

People will always value their own ideas above all else. Not to say that people are selfish or narcissistic, but it’s just human nature. As kids, we didn’t want to share our toys with others. Those toys are mine. My toys.

As adults, the same concept applies, but in a more professional setting. This was my idea, I’m going to value it more than your idea (whether I realize it or not). Again, nothing wrong with that, it’s just how people work.

Circling back to my meeting from the other day, we were about to take on a serious workload. We’re talking years of work. I needed full support from the team. No-doubt-about-it-let’s-do-it kind of support. I wasn’t going to get that if I dropped the “here’s what we’re going to do” bomb.

So I sat quietly. I listened. I interjected when I had to. But most importantly, I let the team discover the direction on their own. How?

Speak When You Have To

Let’s say you have two people on your team: April and Andy.

Andy loves to hear himself talk. He goes into meetings and tosses ideas out left and right. He offers opinions on everything, even if you didn’t ask. Some of his insights are valuable, some of them are…. less valuable. He goes for quantity over quality when it comes to contribution.

April is quiet. She listens to what people have to say and formulates an idea. When she has a fully baked idea, she speaks up. While she might not say as much as Andy, what she does say is impactful. People listen when April talks. Her ideas are regarded as well-informed and thoughtful. She does more with less.

Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash Photo by Camylla Battani on Unsplash

Neither one of these people is right or wrong in their approach to contribution. But if you want people to take to heart what you have to say, make an impact.

The world needs people like Andy. A meeting room filled with a bunch of people all looking around insightfully is not productive. You need the filler to kickstart ideas. Fuel the fire. Start the creativity engine.

“Value your voice.” — Tiffany Pham

But you also need people like April. Filter the value from the minutiae. Speak and be heard. Progress the conversation.

In the meeting with my team, it was April. I have plenty of Andy’s on my team. They talk, I grab onto the ideas that start down the right path, and we move closer to “stumbling” on my secret agenda.

Ask Leading Questions

There are many different types of questions you can ask as a leader, each one with its own value. Closed questions get straight to the point with a simple “yes” or “no”. Loaded questions bring to light assumptions someone may be making. Rhetorical questions secretly get people to agree with you.

Leading questions, however, help to push your secret agenda.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Ask your leading questions to drive focus in the direction you want the conversation to flow. Make your team think more about the path that leads them to reach your conclusion.

A leading question can also take the form of a statement that ties things together. “That sounds an awful lot like X. Which seems like something we want to do.” What you’ve done is taken their idea, and rebranded it as something else. You’ve solidified the thought of your team, giving them confidence in the direction they are headed.

In general, people prefer to say “yes” over “no”. Armed with basic human psychology, you can phrase your questions appropriately to change gears by offering another solution without conflict. If your team is headed in the wrong direction, set them straight with “what do you think about Y? That felt like another viable option as well, right?”

Illustrate Your Point

Humans are visual beasts. We latch onto drawings and associate ideas to them in the blink of an eye. It helps us organize our thoughts and tie together abstract ideas.

Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash Photo by Kaleidico on Unsplash

When you’re having a discussion with a group of people, it’s almost always more productive to draw something on the board. Even if it’s just words. Write the ideas on the board. Let your team fixate on a visual.

In my team meeting, we had someone drawing our ideas on the board. Plans were starting to shape up as thought processes matured, and I could see it was my moment to put the last nail in the coffin.

I took the marker and added some quick arrows between major concepts and threw in numbers for a priority order. I stepped back and let the proposal sink in.

The team loved the idea and since we were all in there together, it felt like a mutually discovered path. Which it was, really. Just with a little nudging along the way.

Seeing the plan drawn on the board helped the team see the overall vision and kept away complexities and edge cases. They had a mental picture of what we were going to do. And we were all in.


The method above is an adaptation of John Maxwell’s 10–80–10 principle.

“For any project, I divide the total process (100%) into the first 10%, the middle 80%, and the last 10%. Then, I involve myself in the first and last 10%. The middle 80% is carried by my team.” — John Maxwell

A leader should trust in their team to make decisions and come up with solutions. Build the relationships and the rapport to enable you and your team to operate at peak efficiency.

Start with nudges. Ask leading questions. Get everyone on the right track.

Enable your team members to be creative and apply solutions. Help yourself by helping them grow into leaders themselves. It’s not an overnight process, but you will quickly see how well people can step up to the challenge when given the opportunity.

Allen Helton

About Allen

Allen is an AWS Serverless Hero passionate about educating others about the cloud, serverless, and APIs. He is the host of the Ready, Set, Cloud podcast and creator of this website. More about Allen.

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