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Leadership: Looking Past the Front Row

Many years ago a friend, a systems dynamicist, told me a story about the perils of only looking at the front row when you’re speaking in an auditorium or leading a group on stage.

He told me that you can easily create a positive feedback loop for yourself, that is, a cause and effect situation that continually reinforces itself, until you find yourself far from your original track.

For example, he noticed that when he gave speeches he got the most positive feedback from the front rows of the auditorium. These people would nod, laugh at his jokes, give him all kinds of active listening prompts, and the more he responded to them, the more they loved it, and the more positive feedback they gave.

However, who sits in the front row? Not only people who can’t see from the back. But people who already are keen, are followers or devotees, people who want and are getting your quality attention, who may even want to be close to you potentially for other reasons – maybe status seekers, your friends, and potentially people who care enough about you not to doubt, question your logic or challenge you. So, in your narrative, they go wherever you take them, and you take them wherever you go. You don’t have to take them very far, they are fans, they agree with you, they are happy with what you are giving them. That is your front row.

There are obvious perils to depending on your front row for real feedback, for insight into other options and directions, and for the personal growth and development that comes from having your ideas and world view challenged (even gently). It is the people in the middle and even in the back, the hecklers and the still-to-be-convinced types, who can do that. They might be sitting back there completely disconnected from what you are saying or worse misunderstanding it, but you don’t notice, you are focused on communicating to your front row because they are making you feel good about your message – your vision, your strategy, your stories, your best jokes.

As a leader, at any level, how can you make sure that you look past your front row (or how can you get the people in the middle or the back to feel comfortable enough to move up there), so that you can get genuine feedback on what you are saying and the decisions you are taking, so you can course correct if need be before you so solidly believe it yourself (these wonderful friendly people just in front of me believe it too so it must be true)? How can you create an environment for yourself where you encourage people to share their opinions even though they may be different than your own (and potentially those of your entire front row). They might give you something very useful that will make you an even better speaker and leader. And, after all, they’re quite important, since they make up most of the audience.

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