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Real leaders know how to serve a room

Feb 08, 2024

I often get senior leaders coming up to me before an offsite or team workshop and asking me, “How do you want me to participate today, Simon?”

I love that they’re asking, but I immediately throw the question back to them: “What do you think will serve the room?”

I’m surprised how often the answer to that question is: “I was thinking I’d just stay quiet, sit back and listen.”

I totally understand where this is coming from. Don’t dominate; make space for others to talk; make sure people aren’t deferring to you. 

But silence is rarely the best way to do it (especially if your version of staying silent is sitting back in your chair looking like you’re biting your tongue or, worse, having an “eyes open nap”).

As a leader, if you’re in a room, it’s your job to serve it. To read a room, and bring what’s needed. 

So ask yourself, “What does the room need?”

Curiosity? Show interest by asking open questions and by ‘learning out loud’ ie sharing with the room what you’re enjoying, learning and discovering.

Honesty? Recognise and celebrate moments when people are courageous enough to share their perspectives, especially when those perspectives don’t lead to easy answers. 

Diverse contribution? Hold a metaphorical microphone, and invite specific people to share their thoughts - not because they haven’t spoken yet, but because you are curious to hear their perspective… and want the rest of the room to be curious too. (See point 1!)

Optimism? Use forward-looking language to keep the energy of the conversation positive  - even when we’re talking about the tough stuff. “I’m excited about…”, “I’m looking forward to…”; “How could we…?”

Energy? Be it.

Leaders don’t serve the room by pretending not to be there.* 


* I’ll never forget a brilliant episode of the original series of Mother and Son (way too long ago!) in which Maggie - played by the legendary Ruth Cracknell - would drape a handkerchief over her head and call out, “I’m not here! I’m not here!”. Hilarious stuff... but not the stuff of leadership.


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