The topic of peer leadership is the most underrated leadership topic today. I’m honestly baffled that no one really talks about it. The reason for my shock is because peer leadership is the best way to develop as an excellent leader, and anyone can do it! I am firmly convinced that if a person commits to being a successful leader among their peers, that same individual will be an exceptional leader when they are given an official leadership capacity. Allow me to explain why.
The very definition of “peer leadership” means that you are a leader of people who you have no rightful power or authority over. Think about it, your peers are, for the most part, your equals. So if you are all equals, how is one person able to be the ‘leader’? If no one has any more authority than anyone else, how is someone expected to take charge and lead their peers? This very conundrum is exactly what makes peer leadership an excellent training ground.
I serve as my dental school class president, and as a leader of my peers, I have no rightful authority over my classmates. I can’t punish, I can’t reward, I can’t do anything you would think a typical leader would do. And yet, I am still able to create policies, hold my classmates accountable to standards, and motivate my classmates to participate in events and tasks. How do I do it without the threat of authority? It turns out that the secrets of peer leadership are identical to what makes truly exceptional leaders. The two areas a peer leader has to master are 1) becoming the best at what you do, and 2) communicating why something matters. Let’s break that down.
The reason a peer leader must be the best at what they do is to build credibility. Think about it, as a peer leader, you have no authority, no reason for anyone to listen to you. As a result, you must establish yourself as a credible person that people should listen to and respect, and you do that by demonstrating that you know what you are doing. A peer leader has to give their people something that makes them want to listen and follow you. Think of it this way – would you follow the advice of the known office slacker? Or would you be more likely to follow the woman who knows what she is doing and has a positive track record of success? Your credibility is the beginning of getting people to listen to you, and as a peer leader, it’s all you have, so you must develop it. If you are committed to leading your peers and growing your leadership skills, start your journey by being the best at what you do. No one will listen to you if you aren’t.
The second aspect to a successful leader is to communicate why doing something matters. We are human beings, not robots, and we are all motivated to do something for a reason. It might be money, time, fame, comfort, or many other things, but we all have a reason for doing something. No one likes to be bossed around and “ordered” what to do. And as a peer leader, you have no authority to boss someone around anyways. Instead, a peer leader has to appeal to a deeper aspect, to a personal motivation. Why should someone do what you are telling them? Why does it matter for them? What is the benefit? What is the gain? As a peer leader, you have to be able to understand why you are doing something, why it matters, and communicate that to your fellow peers.
Every successful peer leader I know has been able to master their job as well as effectively communicate why something matters. And guess what, as a leader with actual responsibility and authority, that is the way to achieve the best results with your team. I know because as an Air Force officer, I had every legal authority to tell my Airmen (most of whom had more experience than me) what to do. I could be a jerk and boss them around and they would legally have to listen to me. I tried it once…and got completely sold down the river (rightfully so). The reason I was unsuccessful was because I had no credibility (even though I had ‘authority’) and I also never appealed to an inner reason for why we should do what we did. As soon as I humbled myself and worked to build my credibility , as well as understand why what we do really matters, my Airmen let me lead them and we became the most successful unit on the flight line.
Peer leadership is the best training ground for becoming an excellent leader. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to lead your equals.