Leading laterally is a remarkably difficult, yet necessary form of leadership. Before you can ever be recognized as a leader, you must first master the art of leading your peers.
As a leader of subordinates, you have your name on the wall, you have skin in the game, you are fully accountable, and everything begins and ends with you. The role of a traditional leader is complex, but fairly cut and dry. You know exactly who you are accountable to, and if you encounter challenges to your authority, it’s often on just one front: your subordinates.
As a leader among peers, you don’t have your name on the wall, you don’t have as much skin in the game, and you aren’t expected to be fully accountable for everything that happens in the organization. The downside, however, is that because you are deeper in the weeds than a superior, you will encounter challenges on many fronts—above, below, and all around. You have to navigate the minefields of jealous peers who will wonder what makes you so special, and face insecure leaders who will feel threatened by your proactive approach. For this reason, you must develop the ability to reduce friction and consistently benefit the overall mission if you are to be accepted as a de facto leader.
Lateral leadership may be necessary if you observe incompetence in your leader, gaps in accountability, or if you are looking to prove yourself trustworthy to those above you. But you have to understand who exactly you are dealing with because you will always be one spark away from starting a fire. This short essay is the seed for a future long-form essay where we will do a much more comprehensive exploration on the art of lateral leadership, but for now, here are three critical elements to start with:
Without influence, there can be no leadership. Without influence, why would anyone want to follow you? As a peer leader, since you are not officially endorsed with the tools of the leader, influence must be your tool of choice. You build influence by going above and beyond for each individual you work with. If they are new, be the first one to reach out. If they are struggling, be the first one to help. If they are going through a tough emotional time, be the ear they need. Always refrain from seeing your peers as tools or barriers. Your peer relationships are critically important. By caring for their needs first and cultivating healthy bonds with them, you reduce the friction you will encounter as a lateral leader.
If someone has a great idea, be the first one to compliment them. If they have a better approach that will help the team accomplish the goal, be first in line to support them. Often, when peers are seen as overperformers, our first instinct is to try to bring them down because we want the credit. But seeking credit is short-sighted and leads to long-term animosity from others around you. The long game is where the real benefit is, because when it is time for your idea to be put into action, those you selflessly helped along the way will be among your closest allies. Publicly give credit away at every chance you get.
If others’ ideas do have gaps and shortfalls, or if there is a difficult issue that leadership will not or cannot address, your ability to help correct it sensitively and respectfully is vital. Of course, as a peer, it’s not your obligation to fix it. But as a peer leader, you need to understand that there will be gaps in leadership that you need to fill. When addressing a problem that needs to be fixed, you don’t have the luxury to outright demand it, so you must be strategic. Your understanding, your thoughtfulness, and your capacity to empathize with others will get you much farther in fixing difficult issues and will build more trust between you and them in the process.
And finally, one of the best ways you can become a leader among peers is to simply do the hard or overlooked tasks. Shoulder the heavy weight for the team. Most people will appreciate you cleaning the bathroom, taking on the difficult client, or picking up the trash that everyone else walks over. In isolation, these may not always be recognized by others, but the truth always shines through eventually. But remember, there are people who will see these behaviors as a threat, and you must always be cognizant of their reactions. In these cases, it is best to back off and lean in to mending your relationship with them.
As a lateral leader, you are always one spark away from a fire, and for that reason, you must always remember how important relationships with your peers. Relationships will carry you if you cultivate them. They will bury you if you ignore them. Such is the art of leading laterally.
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