Leading Peers Without Formal Authority

by Aaron Weiss

One part ally, one part friend, one part rival, and another part sibling. Leading peers without formal authority is a crucible experience. If you can lead your peers, you can lead just about anyone.

Have you ever tried to plan a group dinner? Then, you know just how difficult leading without formal authority can be! Schedules, tastes, budget, and geography are nearly impossible to align. Yet, a dinner with friends is priceless, and after a successful outing, invariably the question becomes, “When are we getting together again?” Success! Similarly, leading peers is both daunting and rewarding. Lateral leadership requires influence, trust, and finesse to navigate the blurred boundaries and shared decision-making rights.

Without the carrot and stick of formal authority, successfully organizing and directing peers relies on followership. Here is some advice about how the best leaders get the most from their counterparts:

Do the dirty work: With friends, this might entail calling the restaurant to make the reservation… and later changing it from 7 people to 8… and then back to 7. With colleagues, you should volunteer to do the unpopular tasks that enable the group to do their best work, like creating a rough draft or scheduling time. Anything you ask your peers to do, you should model in abundance.

Engage regularly: Don’t limit your interactions to when you have an ask. Create regular opportunities to share information and ideas so that there is organic continuity and familiarity. Your peers must be comfortable with your voice to appreciate your authenticity.

Pick your spots: Leading peers is different than managing your peers. You should not expect to supervise your colleagues’ day-to-day activities. Reserve your leadership for opportunities that are differentiating and strategic. In addition, when collaborating on deliverables, resist critiquing insignificant details, which can undermine their expertise.

Identify a shared cause: You must demonstrate to your peers that you understand and empathize with the challenges they face. But beyond helping them solve isolated problems, you should identify the intersectionality of issues that are endemic to a broader set of stakeholders. By addressing the root cause of common pain, you will create an impactful platform that is worth taking a leap of faith.

Make them an offer they can’t refuse: Peers must appreciate the value of partnering with you. The incentive can be concrete such as advancing their agenda. It can also be relational by offering friendship or recognition, and experiential by offering a change of scenery or fun.

Keep your word: Peers will immediately write you off if they cannot trust your motives and integrity. Among all your colleagues, peers often have the lowest tolerance level for lapses and gaffes. They would rather be judged by their individual performance than risk following you off a cliff. Therefore, you must follow through on your commitments, big and small, to earn their trust.

Be vulnerable: Leading peers requires courage, for sure. Since following you is optional, you risk rejection if they decline to team up. While confidence is necessary, you should be open about your vulnerabilities. Peers do not need to be convinced that you have it all figured out – in fact, that can be distancing. You should regularly solicit their advice and input, and allow them to lead you whenever you are authentically stuck.

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