Disciplined Leadership: Begin Empowering Through Better Meetings

This is part of a series of blogs on the theme of ‘Disciplined Leadership.’

In the hybrid in-person/remote we currently live in, we are now expecting people to deliver results without them necessarily sitting around a table with us.

It’s more important now than ever that we have a meeting discipline, which helps to empower others. This includes sending out agendas in advance. We’ve talked about that in the past, but too often it doesn’t happen. We really must to do that now, especially in a hybrid remote/in-person world. empowering team members through better meetings

During the meetings, we need to direct power questions to participants to bring them in and prompt them to deliver their answers during the sessions. We need to give them the ability to be innovative and voice their ideas. We need to establish the ground rules.

I sometimes call them FARs, which is a little Army euphemism for a somewhat crasser term: “flat-ass rules.” These are the rules you establish for meetings that every participant abides by. I’ve seen organizations in which people actually sign an agreement to follow these rules. Their signatures indicate their commitment to the ground rules. It’s important that you provide an environment that’s psychologically safe for people to respond.

The essential elements for success in meetings held in hybrid/distributed environments:

  • Sending the agenda ahead of time,
  • challenging participants individually with questions,
  • and then: listening to the results that you get.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, it’s essential to backbrief the team on what you think you heard (or backbrief the individual, if it’s a one-on-one), on what you think the individual said, stating what you heard. That helps people understand that they’re free to communicate their ideas as long as they’re within the spirit of our azimuth, mission, intent, values, and culture. The message you are sending is “I want to know what you think, and I want to know why you think that way.”

If you’re not familiar with a decision tree, it’s basically a matter of saying, “Okay, these are the decisions I’m making,” and you list those decisions. Then you say: “The rest of the decisions are yours.” That takes some courage.

Now, more than ever, in the atmosphere of anxiety/fear/uncertainty that has circulated over the past few years, we must demonstrate a type of personal courage.

It is a type of courage that allows us to say something like this:

“I’m willing to underwrite some of your ideas. I’m going to listen with the intent to understand. I’m going to trust and empower you to accomplish some difficult tasks that, earlier in my career, I would have probably told you how to do. Now I’m going to ask you, within our mission/intent, what do you think we should do? And how should we go about doing it? We may adopt some innovative approaches that I didn’t come up with. As leader of this team, I’m going to support its members.”

When you allow people to process some of the questions in advance (get the agenda to them ahead of time!) and then present their ideas during the session, and you listen carefully and use that backbrief tool to confirm what you heard and even underwrite ideas that might be a little different than yours, I think you’re going to find that the ‘buy-in’ level goes up. As the buy-in goes up, team member commitment goes up, and so does team accountability.

We often think of accountability as a vertical, top-down process, but I don’t think it is.

I think accountability is really a horizontal process. The most powerful form of accountability is mutual accountability — when we hold each other accountable because we’ve made a commitment to this team and to what we’re doing and to our mission and our intent and our values and our culture, and “we’re going to get through this.” That level of buy-in is going to be an enabler for us to achieve far more than we could if we simply defaulted to “this is hard and I’m a little anxious and I’m not sure how we’re going to do what we’ve always done and still be successful at it.”

One question I was asked a while ago was: “How do you feel about skip-level check-ins with indirect reports?” (In other words, checking two levels down, skipping a team member’s immediate supervisor.) I personally like it as a tool. You can’t use it all the time, but checking two levels down is one way to reinforce the leadership of your direct reports. If you approach it that way and not as a “gotcha” on whether or not your direct reports are doing what they’re supposed to do, then I think you can get some real traction there. What I like to do in the two-levels-down check is ascertain the value of the one-on-ones in terms of the effect they’re having with their direct reports. One-on-ones are the most important meetings that you can have. When I ask two or three levels down what they fund most valuable about the one-on-one, sometimes I get less-than-interesting responses, which tells me I need to get back with my direct reports and reinforce a little bit more of the value of the one-on-ones.

Another question was: “How can we get buy-in from our direct reports with regard to horizontal accountability?” I believe the way you get that buy-in, and it’s not going to happen overnight, is through this one-on-one forum I was talking about above. These one-on-one sessions are where you and your direct report really have the opportunity for a conversation that other people shouldn’t be in on. I think that’s where you build trust as well. As you ask them and learn about what their concept of accountability is, I think that’s going to inform you in some ways as to how you can promote their sense of that accountability. Or, if they lack that sense of accountability, you can help them understand how important it is to have it—because horizontal accountability is mutual accountability.

Oftentimes I think folks don’t understand that there is real value to mutual accountability. Again, the common perception is that accountability is just a ‘gotcha’ technique. It’s important for them to understand that in fact it is: “Hey, we’ve all got obligations here that we’re committed to” and “The benefit of the team is only going to be realized when each of us pulls our weight.” I think that as you’re getting them used to the idea of mutual accountability as a positive experience, they’re going to become more supportive of the concept of holding each other accountable.


This blog is based on my eBook “Who Saw This Coming?” You can get a free downloadable copy of the entire eBook here.

Enjoy the Journey!





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(Based on a post originally published July 2021)