Warning: If You Choose Peer Leadership, You Will Stand Out in the Crowd

Peer leadership is the gateway drug to promotion at work

Woman writing in notebook with another woman
Photo by Zen Chung from Pexels

There is something distinct about an individual who steps up even though they are not required to do so. Whether that is in the face of adversity, or part of their day-to-day activities.

I was a peer leader for a very long time before I took on a leadership title. And peer leadership was the fundamental building block of my success up to this point.

I was a peer leader before I knew what leadership was

As a young girl, I volunteered countless hours with the elementary school. I would run charity events for the school. I was the president of our Band Student Executive (nerdy, I know). And I was socially engaged with the people that I went to school with. I paid attention to them, and I noticed when things were not going well, or when someone needed help.

In fact, looking around and noticing others got me into trouble a few times. I would stick my nose where it wasn’t wanted. And on one occasion I got entangled in someone’s mental health crisis that almost pulled me into a crisis of my own.

But don’t take this as a warning against peer leadership.

But it demonstrates that you can start being a peer leader before you have been named a leader by those around you.

In fact, you can be a peer leader before you even know that it’s what you are doing.

You (and only you) get to choose leadership

Peer leadership happens when you start to engage in the best interests of the people around you. And you must ask yourself, why is it that you want to be a peer leader? What is it about engaging in the best interest of those around you that is engaging for you?

Is it that you want to be involved in the life of the people you know? Is it that you want to improve everyone’s ability to do well, because when one person does well, so can the rest of the team? Are you motivated to be a peer leader because that’s who you are? Does it align with your values or your goals? Does it help you to move forward in a positive direction and learn new skills and traits?

For me, all these things were true. And it was a no brainer for me to step into peer leadership responsibilities at every possible turn.

Here are some examples of peer leadership in action:

  1. Calling team members and colleagues that seem to be “off” that day. Noticing in a meeting if their mood isn’t quite the same or if they are less engaged in the conversation at hand. When working remotely and conducting meetings over video, notice if they are distracted. Pay attention to their mood or posture. Peer leadership is reaching out, giving them a call and encouraging them. Asking questions that show them you care about who they are and how they are doing.
  2. Choosing to join committees and events and helping to plan the things going on around you. This can be getting involved in charity events, or social committees. Participation in voluntary events is one of the clearest indicators of leadership. The leaders are the ones who step up consistently and participate in the things and causes that matter to them.
  3. Sharing information with the people around you. This can be anything from useful tidbits to help others succeed or information for you to gain traction against a competitor. Anytime you share knowledge to help others succeed, you are showing them a great deal of peer leadership. And it takes a lot of consideration to think outside of your own interests and to think “who else might benefit from it?”
  4. Taking responsibility for your mistakes. And this may feel like it’s not related to peer leadership, but it sets an incredible example for the people around you. When you make a mistake, own up to it, and take responsibility for fixing the error, you gain huge amounts of credibility with your peers. This sets a great example and influences them to do the same thing when they make mistakes.

At the most basic level, leadership is example. 

Leadership is example and influence. 

And to have example and influence, you do not need to be a boss.

Here are some qualities of peer leaders:

  • collaborative
  • patient
  • giving
  • thoughtful
  • inquisitive
  • integral
  • honest
  • compassionate

Peer-to-peer leadership is harder than any other leadership level

You have no formalized power dynamic to use to your advantage. And yet you still want to influence. It’s the hardest leadership level because you have no power dynamic to reinforce you.

You have to learn to influence by caring about other people, by sharing what you know with them, and by allowing them to grow alongside you.

Peer leadership is a collaborative process

You can not lead a peer without their permission to do so, and to gain their permission, you don’t straight up ask for it. You show them again, and again that you have their best interests at heart. And you do so, not because you want to be a peer leader, but because that is what is important to you. You care as much about their success as you care about your own.

If you only want to win, you will not be a peer leader

The desire to win is trained into us. So it seems impossible to remove the focus on the prize. Especially when you want to be successful above all else. And if you think of it like a finite-minded game then, of course, you want to beat your competition… and, depending on your workplace, you might think that your competition is your peer. But, the business world is not a finite game.

Simon Sinek’s book, the Infinite Game, describes in detail that business and leadership is a long-term play. Infinite games have no end in sight, and there are no obvious competitors.

In some work environments, your peers can feel like a competitor. But it makes no sense to treat business environments as finite games. The environment is infinite because people can come and leave, the rules of the game can change, and your example is all that you have to rely on throughout that time.

And you can not beat your peers at something that does not have a defined “winning criteria.” In fact, you will gain more traction by helping them to succeed, because that will help you succeed as well.

The benefit of peer leadership is that you learn to influence. And influence is the basis of all leadership 

And as you begin to influence the people around you, you begin to influence the people above you as well. You know, the ones with the fancy titles (managers, directors, VPs, etc.). When this begins to happen, you start to become recognized as a leader in your own right. Not just from a peer standpoint, but as a leader that could be promoted when (and if) an opportunity comes along. Because you have trained yourself to care about those around you and to provide a great example for your peers, you will have pre-established influence as a manager.

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. 

By building your leadership as a peer you can really grow phenomenal management and executive level leadership qualities. As a peer, you have built a solid foundation of respect and caring with your colleagues. They care about you because they know you care about them.

Peer-to-peer leaders do not have special skills

They have qualities that are cultivated over time with an emphasis on thinking about others just a little bit more than they are thinking about themselves. As you begin to set a strong example of compassion and caring, you begin to create a mentoring force within your organization.

The foundation of all people leadership comes from peer leadership.

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