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Does the leader always hold the marker?

Updated: Oct 3, 2022

This is one of my favorite stories told during a workshop in the Netherlands. Imagine you are placed in a group and told to brainstorm a response to the question on the flipchart. What is the first thing that you believe would happen in team dynamics? Logically there would be introductions, but there is always someone who goes to the flipchart and picks up the marker.

One may think that this person is asserting their expertise, wanting to get through the exercise effectively. Others may think the person is asserting their power over the group; perhaps they are a control freak. Whatever the reason, if you have been in this situation, you or someone you know has picked up the marker first.

So, the question is, “does picking up the marker first make you a leader?”

Well, the short answer is no! To see the long answer in action, go watch the 1968 movie “12 Angry men.” This movie is famously used in leadership training around the world. The main character is played by Henry Fonda. His character develops into the natural leader of the group. But he did not start out that way. He began by sitting in a room with ten other jurymen to listen to the facilitator who was given the marker.

If you haven’t watched the movie or think black and white movies are not your thing, let me take you through another story. Let us go back to the scenario of a team of five people, put together by chance to solve a problem.

One picks up the marker and says, “Ok guys, let’s do this! Who wants to go first?” Two team members turn to each other and say, “who made him chief?” Another member stays quiet looking around and the remaining one speaks by giving them her idea. The one with the marker writes it on the flip chart, then asks, “anyone else?”

When no one says anything, he goes into a soliloquy and tells everyone his right answer. At this point, the two guys who were not sure why he was leading the group shoot the idea down. The one who had the first idea stands by the quiet one and looks at the group silently. It’s clear that trust is not formed in this team.

As tensions flare between the members, the silent man steps in to calm everyone down. “Isn’t the object of the exercise to brainstorm ideas? Why are we already settling on the best one? I have an idea to place on the chart too. Here it is…”

Everyone looks at him and sees that he’s right, "we haven’t come to the selection process yet”. The instructor tells everyone to brainstorm. Slowly, they start spewing out ideas and the guy with the marker is having a hard time keeping up. In fact, he is still upset his idea didn’t just close out the exercise. So, he says, “I’m getting tired of writing, do we have enough to make a decision?” Another member says, “wait you haven’t placed mine up there yet. Here, give me the marker and I’ll write it.”

At the end of their brainstorming, they have a laundry list of ideas. The one who had taken the marker at the beginning of the exercise says, “My idea is still the best!”

The others just look at him and start commenting negatively. The once silent man speaks up, “How about we choose an idea we all accept? In this situation, the best way to do it is by voting on the idea. How about we take turns going to the chart and selecting our top three ideas?”

The other members unanimously agreed. They each picked up the marker to place their votes. At the end, an idea which had all five votes shined. They all stared, and one said, “We found the winner!”

Needless to say, the person holding the marker was not the leader but the scribe. The other members found it less threatening to listen to a member state the obvious rather than the person with the marker.

In your current role you may be a manager, so logically you are the one holding the marker at work. Keep in mind that because you are the manager it does not necessarily make you the leader. Give chances to your group to shine and to speak out. Build trust with your team, fostering a collaborative approach. Chances are, when you are problem-solving, you will come to agree on a better idea than your own.

Next time you are part of a team to solve a problem, remember the marker is at best making you the scribe of the group, but it will never automatically make you the leader!

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Want to read inspirational stories that make you think? go to our Anna & Dude series.

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