By Bill Hellkamp
While speaking at a leadership conference, one of the attendees approached me during a break to ask a question. “I appreciate your ideas on leadership, and you’ve given me some great ideas for dealing better with my team. I’m happy to be a good team player for my boss. But I am really baffled as to how to effectively lead a group of my peers. Our meetings seldom get a lot done, and whenever I try to take control, many of them get mad at me while the rest of them ignore me. How can I take a leadership role without causing hard feelings?” Her question is an important one and it is likely that most of us have been in a similar position. While no idea will work in every situation, here are some options you might find useful.
Be an Advocate, Not a Competitor – Someone who is a “glory hog” will never be able to effectively lead his or her peers. If the other team members see you as using this project to advance your career or status, they will not allow you to lead. Instead they are likely to do what they can to thwart you and make you look bad. Instead of acting like their competitor, show them that you are their supporter. Encourage their ideas and opinions. Talk positively about them to the other members and in front of the boss. Allow them to choose the tasks they take on for the project and be supportive of their efforts. In all that you do, show them that you are a partner. Then they will encourage you to take the lead.
Have a Plan, But Stay Flexible – In a group setting, those without a plan will usually defer to someone who has one. However, you cannot be overly assertive in how you present the plan to the group. In the early stages of the project, make sure to solicit ideas from the other members. As these ideas come out, determine (for yourself) how they fit into the plan you have. When the opportunity arises to present your own ideas, allow them to come out a little at a time rather than jumping on the chance to reveal your whole plan. Also, weave the other member’s ideas into your plan and give them credit. That way the final plan will have input from all members of the team. Finally, avoid getting too loyal to your initial plan. The group is likely to come up with ideas that are better than those you thought of. Being a leader doesn’t mean always having the best ideas, but it does mean being able to recognize the best ideas and getting them accomplished. So stay flexible and look for the best possible solution. That way the whole team will be involved in the results.
Obtain Buy-in To the Goals – Leadership is always easier when the players have agreed to the objectives of the project. We know that we must set goals in order to get the project accomplished satisfactorily. Some of the goals such as due date and budget might come from within the organizational structure. But most of the timelines, tasks and functions will be determined within the working group. Show your leadership early in the process by ensuring that goals are discussed and agreed upon by the project team. Once this has been accomplished you can lead merely by reviewing the goals and allowing the group to hold the individual members accountable.
Ask Questions Rather than Giving Orders – If we try to give orders to our peers, we will quickly meet with resistance. However, if we ask thoughtful questions, we can lead the team without seeming to be pushing them. As in the previous section on goals, we can ask a question such as, “Our plan was to have the survey done by the end of this week. Steve, is it going to be finished by then?” Or we can ask questions that get others involved, such as, “Mary, how would you solve a problem like this?” Brian Tracy stated, “A major stimulant to creative thinking is focused questions. There is something about a well-worded question that often penetrates to the heart of the matter and triggers new ideas and insights.” So lead with questions to get more from the team.
Lead With Effort – One of the biggest complaints of team members is that the “boss” gives assignments but never does any of the actual work. I recently experienced this during a client project. The project leader would seldom attend the team meetings because he needed to be at more “important” meetings. Yet he always had an opinion regarding the topics he had missed. He was never available to help during crunch time but was happy to give assignments to others that mostly delayed the project or sent it off on new tangents. People were polite to him when he was there, but when he was gone you could tell they didn’t respect him. You, on the other hand, don’t have the “luxury” of positional leadership. So to be perceived as the leader of the team, you need to be the hardest worker and the one that others come to when they need the help. When you become the go-to person on the project, you will also be the real leader.