The Two Most Important Words for Leaders

Someone once told me: The two most important words in the English language are “after you.”

Can we reconcile this lovely thought with our rigid notion of “the leader,” a word and concept, which quite literally describes the one in front?

Yes! Because in great leadership we follow others, as is appropriate to the situation.

Last night my wife and I followed the lead of our oldest daughter Kate, as the three of us and our other two children met rather formally to discuss how we should consciously build a community, now that we are all under the same roof for the foreseeable future. Kate realized that it had been seven years since we had lived together, and now, unlike then, we are all adults (Jack at 17 is our “baby”). She framed the question. She guided the conversation. And she deftly led us to a new level of respect and shared purpose.

Jennifer and I said “after you” to her — the central figure in our system,* and she worked better than Jennifer or I possibly could have. I am more convinced than ever that “the” leader who goes first generates antiquated, misleading and sub-optimal results for groups. Under so many circumstances, the nominal leader should say not “follow me,” but “after you,” and learn to follow that person who may well be better positioned to lead the group.

After you to…

Lead with your best self.

* Kate’s position, as oldest of the children is akin to many roles in business and organizations. She acted in our meeting like a captain would vis-a-vis a coach and players; or a union rep, interceding between workers and management; or a sergeant who is closer to the troops than a typical lieutenant. Great leaders often cede their power to those who are closer to the problem and instrumental in leading “the troops.”

  • Great insight, Dan!
    By now we are all familiar with the plight of the Gen Y/millennial generation, those born after 1980. They have little or no savings. A third still live with their parents. Those with jobs are often underemployed and underpaid. Not only have they delayed the typical trappings of adulthood–marriage, home, kids–they may be stuck in perpetual adolescence. Yet, these up-and-comers expect to be the ones in control.
    – See more at:

  • Turning things over, or just letting someone else lead for a particular purpose has risks. Have several times been stabbed in the back by people I gave the opportunity to lead. Letting someone else lead is often interpreted as weakness or incompetence, and so there are those who will take advantage of you under these circumstances.

  • I think the psychology of power has been getting it wrong for centuries and these words of wisdom got it right long ago:

    “A leader is best when people scarcely know he/she exists. Not so good when they kindly obey and acclaim him/her. Worse when they despise him/her. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his/her work is done and his/her aim fulfilled, they will say: ‘We did this ourselves.’ ” Lao-Tzu, 5th century B.C. – Tao-Te Ching

  • I’ve said this
    several times before and here again, Leadership is sobering…True leadership
    that is. And for those capable leading it is usually done with great thought,
    care, and the knowingness of the weight of responsibility. That said, we
    progress in levels, increasing hopefully over time. The ability to make quality
    decisions in shorter amounts of time is something that is learned across all
    socioeconomic status and bank accounts. That said, we learn great deal in
    conversations such as these, looking at businesses, the inner workings of families
    that may have characterized our thoughts and approaches on leadership. Grooming
    and developing leadership on the job and at home is somewhat different by
    nature of relationship. I heard a wealthy man say relationship trumps.
    Therefore in business it requires communication and observation of skill etc… In
    a family you relinquish to what you have groomed, influenced and trust- even if decisions are different than yours. In
    part because you understand the heart has the best interest as yours did.
    Speaking specifically of young teens and adults, you’re in the weaning stage.
    It’s not the “totally” let go stage. I’m willing to bet, your children aren’t
    totally ready for “full independence” just yet. Has nothing to do with maturity
    either. Over time you’ll see your grip loosen more and more. I went away to a
    summer program starting at 15 or 16 on a plane for the entire summer. No
    monitoring. My mother said one thing. Come back the same way you left. We all
    know what that means for a young girl. I was glad. I needed her to know that
    she needed to trust what she had instilled in me and as she desired I came back
    the way I left and a little more wiser My first week of college away from home.
    I no longer questioned many of the leadership and parenting of decisions put in
    place to protect me. I had as much fun as I could without going over the edge.
    All lessons in leadership and parenting; Believe it or not you can learn to be
    vulnerable. It can be a great tool for you to check your environment and
    encounters. We aren’t vulnerable for no reason. It can be growing pains, a sign
    of imbalance etc…Great discussion. Your influence of leadership in your absence
    of control.

    the way, I still believe in family dinners and get togethers regularly.

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