The best leaders know when to take a back seat

The best leaders don't dominate; they disappear, according to Mark Murphy:

Article main image
Oct 3, 2023

One of the most enduring leadership clichés is the force-of-nature, command-the-room, extroverted, eloquent executive.

More than a few leaders I can think of blatantly desire employees and customers to become their acolytes – enthralled by their every utterance.

But while the charismatic and dominant leader may capture the imagination, there are plenty of situations where leaders who are willing to take a back seat deliver much better results.

There’s ample evidence, for example, of situations where introverted leaders outperform their more extroverted counterparts.

Take, for example, research conducted on 130 branches of a US pizza delivery firm. The branches with less proactive employees (for instance, those not actively suggesting better methods), witnessed extroverted leaders achieving profits 16% above the norm.

However, in outlets where the staff frequently proposed innovations, these extroverted leaders saw profits dip by 14%.

Think of it like this: When employees are passive, having an extroverted and dominant leader can infuse the group with energy. But when the employees are already brimming with energy and want to take the initiative, having an overly dominant and extroverted leader can feel oppressive and stifling. In those cases, a more introverted leader, someone who’s willing to take a back seat and let the employees drive, can actually generate better results.

That’s one reason why a test of leadership styles has found that the most desired type of leader is the Idealist; a leader who wants to learn and grow, and wants everyone else to do the same.

Idealists listen

Idealists are open-minded and prize creativity from themselves and others.

Sometimes this means soliciting and listening to employees’ ideas.

But that’s easier said than done for many leaders.

In fact, one study found that only 27% of employees say their leader always encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement.

Sitting back means letting others take the lead

Other times, taking a back seat involves letting employees take the lead.

When I spoke with Thanos Papangelis, the co-founder & CEO at Epignosis and self-described introvert, he shared the following: “I believe that there are better people within our organization to do various things, like public speaking, for example. And as an introvert, I’m happy to give them that role. They’re very happy with being able to do what they love, so it’s truly a win-win for everyone.”

A similar sentiment was echoed by Julian Francis, president & CEO of Beacon Building Products.

He shared with me that: “Many leaders want to occupy more space; to be the focal point or decision-maker for the team. But I actually think every leader should be trying to figure out how they can occupy as little space as possible within their role.”

He added: “There are areas, like corporate culture in my case, where I’ve sometimes had to occupy a lot of space. But for something like decision-making at the field level, I want to occupy no space at all.”

Leaders don’t have to be dominant forces

The key is that leaders do not have to be the dominant force on their teams.

They don’t have to know, do, or say everything.

In fact, the more leaders dominate the discourse, the less employees develop, and the less insight leaders can access.

Of course, this runs counter to the idea of the leader as alpha.

But in today’s increasingly complex organizations, there’s simply no way for a leader to know or be an expert in everything.

We should also note that virtually every company and leader has espoused a desire to hire the best and brightest.

And more than a few leadership books have admonished leaders to hire people better than themselves.

While that’s easier said than done, we can start by recognizing those leaders who do an especially good job of listening.

On your next employee engagement survey, for example, use one of these questions from Leadership IQ’s recent survey report:

“My leader encourages and recognizes suggestions for improvement”


“My leader thoughtfully considers my ideas.”

You’ll quickly discover which leaders are willing to take a back seat and, thus, which leaders you want others to model.