Leadership: Power of circle meetings, and benefits of being last to speak

When Nelson Mandela was asked, “How did you learn to be a great leader?” he said he learned two things from his father during tribal meetings: (1) They would always sit in a circle, and (2) His father, the tribal chief, was always the last to speak.

Author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek highlighted that Nelson Mandela is a particularly special case study in the leadership world because he is universally regarded as a great leader. Mandela was actually the son of a Tribal Chief. And he was asked one day, “How did you learn to be a great leader?”

He responded to that question by saying that he would go with his father to Tribal Meetings, and he remembers two things when his father would meet with other elders:

(1) They would always sit in a circle, and

(2) His father was always the last to speak.

Power of circle meetings

The Global Round Table Leadership team found that in venues as diverse as the United Nations, higher education, business, and organizational leadership teams also have their meetings in a circle, as it is one of the most powerful forms of group process.

A group sitting together in a circle is an ancient and time-tested form of gathering practiced in cultures worldwide. You can even use these practices on a Zoom/Skype call or any remote virtual meeting as you imagine the group sitting together in a circle.

The New Ways of Working team suggests that there’s only one rule; one person speaks at a time. The others should be on mute before their turn to speak.

Benefits of being the last to speak

Simon Sinek emphasizes that leaders “need to learn to be the last to speak. I see it in boardrooms every day of the week even people who consider themselves good leaders (who may actually be decent leaders) will walk into a room and say ‘here’s the problem and here’s what I think, but I’m interested in your opinions, let’s go around the room’. It’s too late!

The skill to hold your opinions to yourself until everyone has spoken does two things:

(1) It gives everybody else the feeling they have been heard. It gives everyone else the ability to feel that they have contributed, and

(2) You get the benefit of learning what everybody else has to think before you render your own opinion.

The skill is really to keep your opinions to yourself; if you agree with somebody, don’t nod yes. If you disagree with somebody, don’t nod no. Simply sit there, take it all in, and the only thing you allowed to do is “ask questions” so that you can understand what they mean and why they have the opinions that they have. You must understand from where they are speaking, why they have the opinions they have; not just what they are saying. And at the end, you will get your turn.

It sounds easy… it’s not. Practice being the last to speak. That’s what Nelson Mandela did.”

To clarify, Simon is not saying you can only be a leader if you are last to speak. He is only explaining the benefit gained from speaking last in decision-making. To clarify further, he is not saying you are completely forbidden to talk at the start of any meetings in the sense that a leader is not even allowed to set the tone of a meeting, moderate the discussion, or let everyone know what the meeting is about.

The idea is to understand what others are saying before speaking your thoughts to address a particular issue. Again, you are also to ask questions when you don’t understand what someone is saying during the meeting instead of making assumptions. In that context, Simon does not suggest that leaders must be silent throughout until the very end.

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