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.

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16 responses to “How to lead your peers”

  1. riverbendmedia says:

    Good post on an often overlooked leadership situation. I am a member of 3 different leadership teams where most of the people in the room are peers. We often run into problems with different people taking a command and control approach to being the leader of their peers. I have been on both sides of this equation and it rarely works.

    This post offered some good insight into another way to look at leading peers. I especially liked your "lead by example" point. I will remember and watch for that in future interactions.


  2. Scott Asai says:

    The weakest form of leadership is positional. Try leading volunteers and experience leadership at its purest sense.

  3. Debbie says:

    I consider myself a peer leader. One of the most frustrating peer situations is when a coworker’s mishandling of the client is outside of my “territory” but obviously going to (or has) cost the organization or the client something valuable … and I have had to “step in” on more than one occassion in such a situation with a particular coworker because our supervisor has his hands tied due to the co-worker’s strong-arming the agency with an unfounded discrimination threat. The approach that has worked best has been to document and keep people focused on what the intervention has done for the good of the organization or client. When the coworker (and her cronies) have complained to our supervisor about the territorial issues, he has supported me with the facts of the outcome and, has been building the documentation he will need to show where the coworker could have, but failed to, do her job (ie., I made three information-seeking phone calls in one afternoon that kept a client from quitting us after my co-worker failed to make one needed call over a two month period with that client) … and I am looking forward to the day when the documentation will eventually be enough for the agency to be able to move her out based on her failure to perform her job. Then all of us will be better off for the effort given to peer leadership!

  4. […] choices and business decisions can have great impact on organizational goal achievement.  Click HERE to read the post, and add your comments to the […]

  5. ShanghatrickPat says:

    Problems I have encountered in peer leadership in a government office are:-
    1. All employees know that it is difficult to take any action against them, if ever and whenever necessary;
    2. One colleague seems to be pursuing higher degrees and appears to think that he must not take instructions from a 'lesser qualified' person.
    3 Another employee does not pull his weight and is very often not prepared (in terms of no plans) to carry out his duties. This causes two other colleagues not to be able to work with him on projects where they need to collaborate. Conflict arises.
    4. I often have to rely on the immediate supervisor for an intervention. Colleagues very often ignore the supervisor, as she is virtually powerless to take any significant action against them.
    5. One positive is that six out of the nine colleagues are fully co-operative and do their duties well.

  6. […] Baldoni’s recent blog post entitled How to Lead Your Peers tackles the thorny issue of  demonstrating authority by showing that you are willing to share […]

  7. Morgan says:

    Good post. I have seen peer leadership botched so many times it isn't funny. I would also add humility on behalf of the leader. It has been my experience that even if you know the solution to something that the group is working on, stealing someones thunder will only breed contempt. So as number 2 says: Shut up and listen.


  8. Geoff says:

    Some very good points discussed in this posts. Having the flexibility to adapt to the constantly changing circumstances in the workplace is also required, in my opinion. One of the keys to success is to find a way to spurn individual accountability of all team members. Each must feel and believe that they are truly linked to the overall success of the targeted end result. When this happens, in most cases, everyone performs at higher levels.

  9. Destraught says:

    I would like to ask the advice of whom seems a very experienced group here. Peer pressure is driving me nuts, i am in a trade retail enviroment working with four persons in the team up to now all has been hunkydorie. Recently we had one person change and move on and have now had a young person with no experience of our retail expertese, though knowing nothing, all advice to the customers are coming from books which are being read at this time and word of mouth. This is making things very difficult as we are now under pressure to keep the new person afloat so to speak. I my self have 27 years in the trade and have worked very hard to get here, how do I deal with this young arrogant smart alick? whom by situation is senior to me.

  10. […] the end of March, John Baldoni wrote “How to Lead Your Peers,” and gave great tips on inspiring others and helping get work done through leading by example and […]

  11. […] via How to lead your peers | SmartBlog on Leadership. […]

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  14. Addy James says:

    Really like this very much