All people desire a seat at the table. When I think about this concept, I cannot help but think about a conference room table and the seats surrounding it. There can be deep meanings behind the seats and characteristics of those that occupy them.
First Things First
Start with earning a seat, any seat. I firmly believe that if you want a seat at the table, you must position yourself to be essential to the organization. It may be a literal business boardroom, or it may be a school, government, church, or a non-profit board you serve. Here is the greatest question to determine your essentialness, “If I disappeared tomorrow, would anyone notice?”
The answer must be grounded in humility. Many leaders think they are essential, but that is not determined by you. It is determined by the others you serve at the table. They would notice your literal absence if you disappeared. More importantly though, what would their reaction be? Would there be a sense of relief or sense of concern? A sense of celebration or sense of sorrow? You have the opportunity to provide the answer to that future question each and every day.
In this week’s post, we are going to dive into seven quick observations about various seats at a table:
Head of the Table
The head of the table is the most notable seat at the table. The seat possesses three things: power, position, and ability for presentation. It depends on the motive of the leader as to the effectiveness of each.
First, if the motive of the seat’s occupant is power, that is no bueno. Many use that seat to exert control, authority, and reinforce hierarchy. Second, leaders with pure motives will sit in the seat for position. The seat may need to be occupied by the Chair, President, Principal, Pastor, Owner, or whatever the title is simply based on position alone. It may be a requirement to sit there. Third, they may need to utilize the seat to effectively communicate a critical or important message. It is positioned perfectly for those crucial conversations.
Middle of the Table
Great leaders can lead from the middle seats as well. The head of the table creates significant distance between the leader and the people at the other end. The position of the middle seat creates less distance between you and the furthest person. Proximity increases your presence. People you lead need to feel your presence.
End of the Table
The end of the table is typically reserved for the last one to show up! If you do not want to end up there, understand the importance of being on time to a meeting. Someone’s time is the greatest gift they can give you because it is their most limited resource.
Here is a bonus tip I’ll share with you. Someone shared this with me years ago. Do not ever show up late to a meeting with a Starbucks (or your preferred brand) in your hand. It sends a message that the cup of coffee is more important than everyone else’s time. Don’t end up at the end of the table with coffee that is more important than people.
I like to think that there is always an open seat that represents someone that contributes to the meeting, but isn’t present. These are the people that prepared us for our current seat. They believed in us, invested in us, shaped us, and poured into us. The ones that saw us sitting in that seat well before we ever felt we were worthy of it. Even though they are not physically present, their presence will always be found in our leadership skills and abilities they developed in us.
The observers are those that are learning and growing in our organizations. You have placed them in that seat for exposure and to grow their experiences. These people were once you. They were you when the people who are not present gave you the same chance. These are the sponges in an organization. They are quiet, studious, note takers, and learn through observing the actions of others.
There are people that should not have a seat at our tables, but too often find the coziest ones. These are the toxic people who actively work against and poison your work culture. Many of my greatest regrets in leadership surround letting these people sit at the table for far too long.
My wife Shannon shared a concept that stuck with me from when she was working on her Masters from the book, The Principal as Technology Leader. The Author, Theodore Creighton uses words like “saboteur” and “resistors” to describe these people in organizations. In the Energy Bus, Jon Gordon refers to them as, “Energy Vampires” that suck the life out of the organization. I’ve heard ADDO Co-Founder and fellow leadership blogger Kevin Paul Scott describe them as, “on board terrorists.”
As leaders, we tend to find ourselves rationalizing their existence. We convince ourselves that the person’s value in getting tasks completed outweighs the cultural impact. These people need to be removed from their current seat and yesterday is never too early. Through our hiring practices we need to make sure that we are thorough and find people that fit our culture. This way these toxic people never get a seat at the table in the first place. (Check out the post on Cultural Monoxide for more on toxic people and the impact to your organization)
The Other Seats
I see a lot of people in meetings draw out a table at the top of their notes. Through the introduction process at the beginning of the meeting, they write out people’s name on their seats at the table. This is an effective tool at remembering names and positions. It is a tactic I try to emulate.
Here is a step I am adding to that process. Write the word OTHERS in the center of the table you draw. This is a personal reminder that the rest of the seats are more important than yours, regardless of hierarchy. It humbles you and reminds you that you are there to serve others.
Great leaders have the innate ability to put themselves second to the primary purpose of others. Wherever you sit at the table, there is no greater reminder that that.
Just like a cheap office chair, those in positions of influence who use their seat for selfish motives will not last long before they are removed from the table. Seats at the table are reserved for those that understand that their influence is to be used selflessly, not selfishly. Selfless leaders make great leaders and great leaders will always have a seat at the table.