Sometimes the best way to put yourself forward is to take a step back.
Leadership is an act that requires stepping forward as a means of asserting authority. When it comes to leading peers, you can demonstrate authority by showing that you are willing to share your authority with others.
Peer leadership is something that is often overlooked in leadership circles because, most often, we focus on what and how leaders lead their followers. This is appropriate, but much of what’s accomplished within an organization is because of people in the middle who get things done. Sometimes it requires leading up — what you do for your boss — but often, it requires what you do with and for your colleagues — leading peers.
Throughout history, we have seen seemingly ordinary folk step up and take charge. Call it the “Cincinnatus model.” Cincinnatus was a Roman farmer who left his land behind to serve as Rome’s leader when the city was threatened by warring tribes. When peace was restored, Cincinnatus resigned his post and returned to his farm. Selfless service by Cincinnatus served as inspiration for George Washington, who followed his example. Leadership from the middle need not be an act of heroism, but it should be done with forethought and planning.
The first thing to understand about leading peers is that it is a means of exerting control over someone else. If you have brothers and sisters, or if your children do, then you know the frequent complaint: “You’re not the boss of me.” With peers, you do not boss — you lead — and most often you do it by setting the right example. Let me offer some suggestions:
- Find the pain. Sometimes the need to act is urgent; it will hit you with the force of a two-by-four across the face. Crises provoke the need for immediate action. But you do not need to wait for a burning platform to step forward. Sometimes the need to act comes from what is not being done — processes that are malfunctioning, employees being misdirected, or customers not being served. That may call for action from the middle.
- Listen more than you speak. Before you go too far, listen to others. Get their assessment of the situation. Find out if they want or need help. None of us like a meddler. If people do want help, do not pull a “command and control” act. Listen to what their needs are, and identify the true problem before you act. When trouble brews, it may only be a symptom of a larger issue. Therefore you need to size up the situation and assess what you can do.
- Stand back. If you have the power to act, do it. But work with people — not in spite of them. Think like a film director. You are the one behind the camera. The actors are doing the work. You are simply providing some direction, but they are doing the work. Be willing to lend a hand but do not try and take over. Remember that you are a colleague, not a boss.
Peer leadership is fraught with peril. Too often, those who try to do it get burned. Sometimes this is because they have overreached, or because they do not have the authority to do what they want to do. Often there are rivalries among peers, such as two or more people going for the same job. Navigating that terrain can be treacherous.
There is no easy way around such issues, but one method is to lead with your project. Let what you are seeking to accomplish — your project, your initiative, your process — be the star. Demonstrate its benefits for the organization. This way, you show that you are more interested in helping the company succeed than in shining your own star.
Leading peers, of course, is a good way to get noticed. When done correctly, it positions you as someone who knows how to make things happen. It’s even better when your peers support you. Then, you demonstrate that you have the support — and most often — the trust of others.
Those who lead from the middle are a rare breed, but one that is essential to the success of any enterprise.