supporting role in leadership

The Importance of Taking a Supporting Role in Leadership

By: Benjamin Aim

Perhaps there’s no better way to describe decision-making than tense. Want evidence? Just look to Hollywood’s ability to keep a viewer’s attention as a story unfolds. During that unraveling of a story, the viewer witnesses several micro-moments where the outcome hinges on the decision made by the lead character. But, more often than not, the lead character does not work alone. They work in tandem with a supporting character.

One of the best movies where you can witness this dual approach to decision-making is The Green Mile. Throughout the movie, Tom Hanks, the lead guard in prison, is forced to make a series of key decisions. While he has an idea for the best course of action, he needs support. To get that support, he leans on his co-guard, “Brutal,” to help decide the best course of action. Brutal switches his support style depending on the situation to favor the best possible outcome. 

Many people will tell you that the most relatable character in that movie was Tom Hanks. That’s because many people see themselves as the primary character of their life story. But, in a world of primary characters, we should aim to remember sometimes to take the supporting role. 

Leading From the Back

There’s no way to get around it. We all see ourselves as the primary character in our life. Still, as leaders, we must remember that everyone on our team holds that same worldview. Everyone, regardless of role or responsibility in the corporate chain, operates as the lead character. As leaders, when we hone in on this worldview, it becomes clearer how beneficial it can sometimes be to lead from the back by adopting our support style to the situation to favor the best outcome.  

But let me be clear. It’s not easy to switch from leading from the front to leading from the back. It requires mental gymnastics to select when to take charge and when to let your team take the helm. Mastering those mental gymnastics is essential if you want to be a strong leader for your team. This shift isn’t about heroics. Nor is it about emotional attachment to the outcome. Instead, it’s about empowering team members and creating an atmosphere that fuels project success time and again. 

Here are three ways you can practice this unique leadership style most effectively.

Supporting Role #1: The Challenger

In The Green Mile, when Tom Hanks’ character comes up with the idea to break the inmate out of prison for a night, Brutal, his supporting character, challenges him. He questions how well he’s thought out the decision he’s making. He pushes back and plays devil’s advocate to really help determine that the guard team is about to make the best possible decision for the situation. 

That pushback is valuable. In doing so, Brutal helps verify that the course of action is correct and sets himself up internally to support the decision wholeheartedly. 

This concept of piecemealing and working your way towards a desirable outcome isn’t unique to Hollywood. There’s a psychological principle that supports why this process is so effective. It’s called The Ikea Effect. The Ikea Effect states that people put a disproportionately high value on the things we create, either partially or fully. Ikea sells its furniture in pieces and asks the customer to build it themselves. In doing so, the customer becomes more attached to the product than if they purchased the finished product. There’s value in engagement, and that engagement is often a key driver of project performance. When employees are involved in the building and learning, they value it more and engage with it more readily. 

How to Play the Role of the Challenger: Challengers, as supporting characters on a team, are there to help ask the right questions. On a recent project where I was assigned to support a domain lead, I was able to ask questions to solidify my own understanding. I’d push back, much as Brutal did (who was not really a brute), by asking questions like, “are you sure?” and “can you walk me through this?” In doing so, I could support the lead and find small holes that had not been initially seen. 

The corollary is important as well. Another project I worked on had a team that never asked questions about what the leaders were doing. Because of that, leadership questioned decisions and got caught up in a loop of worry that something was forgotten or overlooked. 

The “challenger” leadership style creates a shared reality around an objective. Once the questioning phase is over, that conversation and ultimate agreement help every team player become the voice of action. 

Supporting Role #2: The Voice of Action

In another pivotal scene from The Green Mile, Brutal assures his team lead that the actions taken were the right ones. When the group was at a point of no return, Brutal helped build confidence in the lead by saying, “You need to give the order — you know that.” 

In business, it’s natural for teams to fall into the status quo bias. This bias bubbles up at those same key moments when decisions must be implemented and put into action. It’s when a new product gets launched, and teams worry it won’t go as well as anticipated. Or the moment when new products must get released to wholesalers and teams worry that the various channels won’t want to stock them. As a result of this fear of risk, teams avoid making decisions and keep things running status quo. 

In a world of exponential change, teams need to take action. By not doing so, they often play a bigger risk by staying in place. Still, there needs to be that supportive role in reminding the lead that they have done everything they could and they have the support of the people behind them. 

How to Play the Role of the Voice of Action: When it comes time to execute, teams benefit from having a voice of action. 

I experienced this on a recent project when we were in the middle of a high-intensity, short timeline cutover plan. Someone started questioning one of the tasks at that moment, but the timing was off. The plan was already in motion, coordinating over 50 people in a few days. There was no turning back! 

Rather than getting trapped by perfectionism, a supportive character can nudge a team into action with a plan that’s only 80% perfect. This mindset is necessary for a supportive character because it helps to know when to challenge and execute.

Supporting Role #3: The Encourager

There are times to challenge and execute, but there are also times when supportive characters need to do nothing more than encourage. Encouragers are the glue on a team that holds everything together. They honor a project’s human element and consider the team’s emotional aspects. In doing so, they can take the backseat and let others shine while simultaneously offering words of encouragement. 

This type of empathy goes a long way. According to a recent study by Catalyst, leaders who show empathy can help teams become better innovators, build higher team engagement, improve retention, organically encourage inclusivity, and create a culture of more work-life balance. 

Encouragers are often the ones there to pull someone aside and say, “I see you’re struggling and am here to grab a drink with you sometime if you want to talk.” They can also be the ones that nudge someone by saying, “let’s disconnect for a second,” and then cracking a joke to break the tension. 

How to Play the Encourager Role: Encouragers hover at a 30,000-foot view, recognizing things like when burnout is coming or when a team member has bit off more than they can chew. At that moment, an encourager can step in and offer additional resources to take the burden off the team.

This came up recently on a project I worked on where I had trouble resourcing a project. Our resources were half what they needed for a six-month project. As a lead, I made up for the difference by pouring in up to 70-hour workweeks. It wasn’t until an encourager stepped in and got the attention of someone who could bring on more resources that I was able to come up for air. 

If you see someone having a bad day or putting in extra time, doing little things can make a big difference. Crack a joke to cut the tension. Take that person out for lunch to change the environment. Act on what you see is missing from the team dynamic. 

Ultimately, we all want to lead and be the most knowledgeable. Still, it’s not necessary to constantly play the lead role. Supportive roles are equally, if not more, critical. No one ever wants too many cooks in a kitchen, but for that to happen, we must remember that it is ok to be a sous-chef. Let’s celebrate the “Brutals” in this world of leaders.