by Chris Martin
“Lateral leadership” is one of the hottest terms in the business world these days, it seems. The idea behind lateral leadership is that you lead your peers in the workplace without having any hierarchical authority over them. You lead a team of peers on a project. Perhaps you even have to lead a group of people who have more hierarchical authority than you do.
Leading when you are not “the boss” or “in charge” can be tricky. You don’t have any real authority to make anyone do anything you are leading them to do. You set a vision, you explain the strategy you have created for the team, and then you hope people do what you have asked them to do.
How does this practically happen? How can you lead when you aren’t in a position of positional authority?
1. Be nice.
This is massively underrated when it comes to leadership. Many believe that leaders have to be tough, demanding, and notoriously difficult to please. That shouldn’t be true. That is not to say that leaders should not have high standards and hold the people they lead accountable—they definitely should. But, especially when we are leading without positional authority, we must lead people with kindness and understanding.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the smartest, most capable person in the room and you lack kindness. Why? Because without the positional authority to force people to do what you say, a lack of kindness ultimately results in a lack of relational authority, which is crucial for leading when you’re not in charge.
2. Be credible.
My friend and former boss Eric Geiger says, “You cannot walk without legs and you cannot lead without credibility.” Credibility relies upon character and competency.
It is important that the people you lead can trust your character. If they see you cutting corners, flirting with people around the office, exaggerating performance metrics, or others signals of moral inadequacy, you will lose credibility. It will hinder your ability to lead, and rightfully so. Character is an integral part of credibility.
Likewise, it is important that you are one of the smartest people in your room when it comes to your discipline. Don’t hear that as “pride.” You don’t work hard to be the smartest person in the room in order to make yourself feel better than everyone else. You work hard to be one of the smartest people in the room because part of your responsibilities as a lateral leader is providing guidance and insight into your discipline that others may not have considered or implemented themselves. Competency, along with character, is vital to building credibility.
Work hard to always be a half-step ahead of everyone you lead in your competencies. Not because you want to lord it over them as a means of power, but because you want to be able to pull them forward when they feel stuck in the mud, unsure of what to do next.
3. Be aware.
Awareness is valuable in all of its forms. We must be self-aware. We must be aware of the workloads of the people we lead. We must be aware of the skills and limitations of the people we lead. We must be aware of our own inadequacies. Without awareness we’re blind to our weaknesses and the weaknesses of those we lead, and that causes us to lead poorly.
We are often blind to issues around us. Sometimes we’re blind to our own weaknesses. Sometimes we’re blind to the weaknesses of people on our team. Either way, when we lack awareness, we are impaired in our leadership. But how do we maintain a level of awareness when we often don’t realize we lack awareness in the first place?
Awareness is best achieved through accountability. When we have one or two people in our lives who can give us feedback without the biases and blind spots we have when evaluating our own lives, we can see a fuller picture of our strengths and weaknesses. Without self-awareness and situational awareness provided by friends or co-workers, we rely solely on our perspective of things, and this often causes self-focused leadership to overtake others-focused leadership.
Relational authority and positional authority are both factors in leadership. But when we lack positional authority, when we’re leading but we’re not “in charge,” we have to do all we can to build relational authority with the people we’re leading. Building relational authority requires us to be nice, be credible, and be aware.