Psst ... looking for an uncommonly powerful leadership practice? Try peer leadership.

Photo credit - Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson

Photo credit - Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson

Most people believe leadership means directing people who work for you, "down" the organization.

Many other courageous and/or desperate souls do their best to lead up, helping their leaders help them.

Both of these styles can be useful and appropriate in the right contexts.

In my experience, the most overlooked and under-practiced form of leadership is peer leadership - influencing, supporting, and helping people at the same level grow and succeed.

If you've ever had a helpful teammate privately take you aside to share something going on in your area of responsibility, or ask you how you're doing with a challenge, or even whisper you've got spinach stuck in your teeth, you've experienced peer leadership.

This leadership style isn't about being nice and doing your best as a team member. Instead, peer leadership means you take responsibility to support others to do their best for the good of the whole organization.

Many organizations we work with encourage peer leadership as a way to enhance their leadership team's performance. Here are three benefits of effective peer leadership and how to implement this style at your company.

1. Peer perspective helps you recognize you aren’t alone

Peers can appreciate the challenges of working at the same level of the organization, and also can see the potential blind spots of their colleagues. They can provide feedback without the fears of "what's wrong with you?" pressure of authority coming from above or "why can't you help us?" needs coming from below.

I regularly get the chance to speak to Vistage groups - leaders who come together as peers under the guidance of a Vistage chair to work through professional and personal challenges of being a leader. The amount of support many leaders find from peers outside their company is tremendous. In these meetings we frequently hear "been there, done that" wisdom, ideas on how to navigate a tough situation, and empathy of dealing with setbacks or loss. If peer-based support helps leaders across companies, imagine how support from peers within your company could make a difference.

2.  Peer leadership creates confidence and belonging

 "Peer pressure can be your best friend" - Patrick Lencioni

Most people think of peer pressure as a negative force teenagers overcome to avoid pain and poor choices. In our experiences working with teams, we’ve come to agree with Pat - peer pressure can also be a force for good. It allows people to say “I’m motivated to work harder not to let the team down.”

In his books The Advantage and Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Pat advocates for organizations to be healthy, starting with alignment of the leadership team. His simple model for Healthy Teams includes vulnerability-based trust, healthy conflict, joint commitment, peer-based accountability, and shared results. In Pat's experience, peer-based accountability is the most difficult yet most rewarding to achieve of these components.

We are currently working with an executive leadership team at an $100 million product distribution company. Over several months, this team went through our Goal-Focused Teambuilding process that’s based on the Healthy Teams model.

After one workshop, a leader shared with me: "At my previous big corporate job, I was essentially taught to hand my leader any problems with colleagues - especially if they were in another department.  I learned that problems with others wasn't my problem. Then one day I was told that I was a problem. My peers were handing our leader problems they had with me - and my leader didn't tell me about them until it was too late. I felt terrible. The most painful part was I was working away, thinking I was doing well, and I wasn't given the feedback or the chance to do better. I guess my boss decided I couldn't handle it. But now, at this company, I can count on my peers to give me direct feedback, and I do the same for them. So much better! I am a better leader because I don't want to let my peers down - and they do the same for me."

When people know feedback will be given in a safe and respectful way, employees can trust they belong and their opinions and observations positively influence the company.

3. Peer leadership allows your organization to solve bigger problems

Functional managers often see their primary responsibility to ensure their group of people produces just what the organization needs from their function. While well-intentioned, this narrow focus often leads to highly effective silos and an ineffective organization overall.

Ever heard "That's not my job"? Those four words are key indicators for a potential need for peer leadership. Essentially that phrase translates to "If my boss and the people who work for me are happy, I'm good. I don't need to worry about anything else." If this attitude is backed up by organization design, the results can be anywhere from frustrating to downright dysfunctional.

When I served as an Air Force officer in Civil Engineering, our organization provided the right facilities to support missions on the base. However, our good intentions didn't always work the way we wanted.

There used to be something called the "CE Shuffle." Let's say you (as a commander of a mission on base) found some water dripping in one of your buildings and called in the leak. The Plumbing Shop would dispatch someone who would promptly tell you "Ah, not a plumbing leak. Looks like a roof problem. Call the Carpentry Shop." The carpenter would say "Ah, not a roof leak. Looks like a condensation problem. Call the HVAC Shop." And so on. You'd get shuffled from function to function, getting more frustrated while the problem remained a problem.

Fortunately, some high level leaders got together and worked to solve this problem by breaking up the shops and assigning some of each craft to zone maintenance functions responsible for different geographic areas on the base. The new structure forced all the functions to work together and influence each other to prevent "passing the buck" on facility problems, to the delight of our customers.

So how do I get more peer leadership in my team?

In our experience, peer leadership is missing when there are function-based goals and a fear of personal conflict.  If you find your organization is missing peer leadership, start by working Lencioni’s pyramid from the bottom up.

Healthy Teams pyramid.PNG

Speaking across departments requires trust where people can be vulnerable. Do your team members know they can count on each other to have their backs? Can they can be open about their own fears, mistakes, and weaknesses? If trust is missing, conflict will divide and isolate your team rather than strengthen relationships and results.

If you have a solid basis of trust, do you have a practice of healthy conflict? Do your team members speak up about concerns, ask questions, and bring up possibilities in discussions about topics key to your organization’s success? These two elements of trust and healthy conflict are foundational to being able to develop peer leadership in your team.

If you have your base of trust and conflict, next check for commitment and shared results. Have you set and committed to goals that require your team of leaders to work together to succeed?

In the earlier example of the CE shuffle, the plumbing department may have been very highly rated for the measure of quickly responding, but the customer - the building owner - became much happier when the metric was changed to time needed to get the leak resolved.  

Look at your company’s goals and key performance indicators. How many of your objectives can be accomplished by a single function? Step back and ask what your customer's want from your company.  You will likely find collaboration across departments is required to meet the customer's need. When you set goals requiring departments to work together, you are more likely to get peer leadership.

Finally, how are you encouraging positive peer-based accountability in your team? If a member of your team comes to you with a complaint about one of their peers, do you encourage them to go direct with their concern to their peer?  Encourage discussion and cross-functional support between your departments. Thank your leadership team when you see them holding their peers accountable to group goals. Peer accountability is not criticism for falling short, rather it's looking for ways to support each other in meeting challenging goals.

How much of a difference could peer leadership make in your organization? Lencioni’s Healthy Teams pyramid can help you identify where to focus to increase this third kind of leadership, so you can gain the benefits of a strong team.

If you'd like to discuss your particular challenge and get some ideas on how to move forward, let's talk.


Chris Hutchinson

As CEO of Trebuchet Group, Chris Hutchinson thrives working with clients and his team to improve organizational clarity, teamwork, and leadership impact.

After years of building Legos® and tree houses around the world, Chris earned his Mechanical Engineering degree and followed that with an MBA. His experiences in the military and the business world taught him great leadership can be learned, and everyone is in some way a leader.

Clients and peers describe him as an inspirational catalyst for positive change. He is the author of Ripple - A Field Manual for Leadership That Works.

Chris and his wife live, garden, and bike in Fort Collins, Colorado, and have four children. He has an unrequited love affair with brownies.