image of a foam coffee cup with brown outer sleeveMost of us don’t think about leadership and leading in the context of our peers. After all, by definition, there’s no hierarchical relationship between group members. Conventional thinking suggests our peers are our teammates, our colleagues and our fellow managers or executives, not people we’re supposed to lead.

That thinking is nice, but naïve, if you’re intent on doing more for your firm while bolstering your career prospects.


  • Groups of peers are not groups of equals in terms of power, political savviness, capabilities or aggressiveness. They’re a collection of heterogeneous personalities with diverse and often divergent interests.
  • Peer groups are headless. In an effort to remain collegial and respectful, few but the bravest of souls venture into the realm of assuming leadership for these teams. Push too far and too fast and your peers will momentarily unite to push back at you. “Who are you to suggest what WE should do?” On the other hand, these groups are ripe for “benevolent” and issue-focused leadership.
  • Peer groups of managers are typically not highly functional or contributory entities in most organizations. Management “teams” are simply a team in name only. Your fellow managers likely share information and updates at operations reviews and provide input in strategy sessions, but they don’t do much together that creates tangible value.
  • The opportunity for improved collaboration between peers is very real. The potential for these groups to create value around the right issues—strategy execution or problem solving in what I term the “gray-zone” between functions, is incredible. The operative word is, “potential.”

7 Steps to Help You Assert as a Leader with Your Peers:

1. Know that “trust” is your currency in-trade. If you’ve cultivated solid relationships based on showing respect, offering your trust and delivering on commitments, you’re starting from a good position. Friendly advice: if you’ve engendered something other than trust across your relationships, stop reading now and give up on this idea of asserting your leadership with your peers. If you need to strength your currency reserves of trust, focus on number 2, reciprocity.

2. Grow your accounts receivable balance for reciprocity. Reciprocity is second in value only to trust. The essence of reciprocity in an organization setting is: If I help you, you have an unspoken obligation to help me at some time. Give first to get later.

3. Focus your peer-group leadership efforts on gray-zone issues. The problems in the gray-zone are those process inefficiencies or bottlenecks that no one department or function owns. They exist between functions. Identify one of those items and build the case for cross group collaboration to solve it.

4. Create heroes out of your group members. Keep the spotlight on the contributions of your peers and their teams, even if you were the one to organize the problem-solving effort. Remember, you’re playing the long-game and you will benefit from shining the light brightly on others.

5. Practice shuttle diplomacy. Most of us interact with peers more by exception than design. Make certain to build time into your schedule to check-in, share ideas or offer your help.

6. After some victories solving gray-zone issues, raise the stakes by focusing on strategy execution. The gap in most firms between the ideas of strategy and the coordination of strategy execution is Grand Canyon-esque. This is a great place to direct the energy and gray-matter of a peer group that has recently cultivated a track-record for solving problems together…with your guidance and yes, your leadership. Focus the group on the issues of coordination and communication essential to implement new programs and monitor results.

7. Assert as a peace broker for border skirmishes. Armed with ample trust and a strong accounts receivable balance of reciprocity, pay attention to and help your team members navigate differences. By your de facto leadership of the group around key business initiatives, you’ve created the basis for shared interests between members. Appealing to and leveraging those interests is a powerful tactic for resolving differences of opinion or approach.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

For anyone waiting for the guidance on the “Frank Underwood” (House of Cards) power-play in this post, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Leading your peers isn’t about collecting power to feed your ego. Rather, it’s about tapping into the potential of your colleagues to solve problems and move the performance measures in the right direction. After all, the best leaders have something larger in mind than their own personal interests. And yes, get this right and you will be noticed and you will benefit.

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Art Petty serves senior executives and management teams as a performance coach and strategy facilitator. Art is a popular keynote speaker focusing on helping professionals and organizations learn to survive and thrive in an era of change. Additionally, Art’s books are widely used in leadership development programs. To learn more or discuss a challenge, contact Art.

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