When you ask people to describe a leader, they often refer to a well-known, charismatic, courageous individual who has inspired them. If you’ve ever picked up a book on the subject – and there are a lot of them - they are almost always either written by (or about) politicians or captains of industry. When we think of the word leader, we usually have someone in a position of authority in mind. Someone whose role, whether elected or appointed, confers on them a level of power to command and control other people. However, you may not be aware the dictionary definition of the verb ‘TO LEAD’ is subtly different from that of the noun ‘LEADER’:
To lead is to “show someone the way to a destination by preceding or accompanying them”.
The purpose of leading is not about power or command as such. It is about enabling others reach a destination or goal - sometimes at the head of the group, but sometimes alongside them as their peer. Whilst leadership can – and must – coexist with any position of authority, it in no way depends on it. Any group of people who wants to achieve anything has need of a leader. And anyone can be that leader, even when they’re not the boss!
Lateral Leadership relies firstly on your willingness to take personal responsibility for resolving a problem. This is not a skill it’s a choice, which can perhaps be more difficult than it seems. Here’s an interesting fact: social psychologists have identified that people experience a diminished sense of personal responsibility when they’re amongst a group of their peers. A study evidenced that the force generated by a team pulling on a rope in a tug of war is demonstrably less than the sum of the strength of the individuals in the team.
Secondly, lateral leadership requires an ability to positively influence others through our own actions, so the group achieves a better outcome more quickly than they would have done if just left to their own devices. When you lead laterally, people follow you not because of your authority, but because of who you are, what you stand for and most importantly, what they see you DO. Whatever the limits are on your personal authority, you should think of yourself as a potential leader of a group of people in any given situation – you don’t have to wait for that promotion.
The purpose of lateral leadership is actually quite simple. It’s to improve the way people collaborate in a task to achieve high quality results that benefit everyone equally. It’s not about enhancing your personal power or promoting yourself. It’s using a particular set of skills to get things done with others, when you have no direct authority over them. This “constellation of abilities” that you need are to persuade, negotiate, facilitate, network, collaborate and build coalitions with peers. And you also need a mindset which has the courage to challenge the status quo constructively presenting ideas for doing things better/faster/cheaper, whilst being generous in supporting others in the group.
Today’s organisations often have flat matrix-style management structures, which use temporary project teams, often involving outsourced contractors or other third parties. More people than ever need to collaborate in groups to get work done, so there is a greater need than ever need for leadership. However, flatter structures mean fewer managers available to assume that role. The need for organisations to develop people who can lead laterally from anywhere in the hierarchy, is greater than ever.