Peer Leadership and The Power of Persuasion

As I watched my college Alma mater leave it all on the field this past weekend, as they always do, I am reminded of my days in the leadership crucible which was my college experience.  I decided very early that I wanted to attend one of the U.S. Service Academies.  I was one of the lucky ones who saw my dream become a reality.  Averaging about a 6% acceptance rate for today’s college bound seniors,  I recognize I would likely not be admitted today due to the sheer competitiveness, so I’m lucky on many fronts to have successfully completed the experience many years ago.  Aside from a rigorous academic challenge and many other tangible benefits, attending a service academy gave me an introduction to what I believe to be the most difficult of all leadership challenges, that of leading your peers. 

The student population in the academies are broken down into military styled companies, each containing representatives of the four graduating classes during any snapshot in time; each company containing roughly 100 students representing each of the four classes.  In my company, there was a group of approximately 26 or so of my peers.  Further setting the stage, we were together from the ages of 18 to 21 (just to use easy figures, some midshipman were older than the average due to their admissions source ).  There we were, all present to serve our nation, but operating at different levels of maturity and with different overall career aspirations.  One thing was clear; we were all developing our own ideas about leadership and learning which styles suited us.  Exercising leadership principles could be easy in some instances and extremely difficult in others.  It was a lot like our professional lives now.

During my time in college, I was given an opportunity on more than one occasion to assume positions of leadership and sometimes I excelled and other times I fell flat on my face.  Each time I learned a tremendous amount about what it means to be given the reigns in a group of strong-minded individuals and assigned tasks or asked to provide guidance.  It was like corralling a group of stallions.  The real teaching point, when dealing with peers, was learning who the other pivotal leaders were among the group and getting their buy-in through suggestions, discussions and the exploration of leadership ideas.  Over time, I learned that I didn’t have to convince all 25 people of the virtues of my decision-making path, just a select few of them.

The discovery did not come easy and as I look back on those years I realize that was how things got done, but they were by no means orchestrated.  After serving the last twenty-plus years in leadership positions, I still find this to be true today, although I honestly do not embrace it all of the time.  In the current pseudo corporate enterprise I now operate in, the issue of peer leadership manifest itself in the need to achieve buy-in from line supervisory personnel or my fellow executives during any major implementations or changes.  What is it about leading your peers that makes it so difficult?  Using my experience as a microcosm of what you may be experiencing, the answer is really simple.  We get to a point in our lives where we are convinced of the rightness of our own ideas, our decision matrix and our chosen path.  It can be quite a barrier to productivity at times.  There are two periods in life where this belief seems to largely govern our approach to problem solving; the college years and middle-age (there may be a third, but I haven’t gotten there yet).

Sometimes, this decisiveness and steadfastness is necessary.  Decisiveness is an important attribute for leaders, maybe one of the most important, but the best among us pauses briefly during the major decisions to see if they can gather anything of value by taking the pulse of the line management or even the line personnel and sometimes even our peers.  When you have the luxury of time, these pauses can be critical.  If you find yourself needing peer support to achieve an objective that’s extremely important to you; I would suggest working on your powers of persuasion instead of extolling the virtues of your concept.

Learn to take some components from your peers and get help pushing the concept to the winners circle.  Momentum remains an important component of productivity.  If you have read my blog, you know I’m a big “productivity guy” and if you really want to get things done you can’t spend all of your time trying to push your original idea or concept across the finish line.

Through the years I have come to learn the true importance of this maxim.  The corollary of this is that as I get older, I also find myself less interested in convincing my peers of the benefits of my approach.   Pausing to gather input and exercising your persuasive capabilities requires a certain finesse and a focus on accomplishment.  The journey and challenges continue…..

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