Leading Your Peers

“My ego demands- for myself- the success of my team.”
–Bill Russell, Team Captain, Boston Celtics

At Diamond6 we frequently speak about four “dimensions” of leadership. They are:

  • Leading ourselves
  • Leading others
  • Leading the boss
  • Leading (or being led by….) our peers

The last of these, leading peers, is perhaps the most difficult and least examined. Leading peers is hard because it often leads to conflicts over loyalty. It raises thorny questions: Is my greatest loyalty to my peers (friends, colleagues, and co-workers) OR is my loyalty to the organization? Are the mission, vision, and values of the organization more important than my personal relationships?

Sometimes You Stand Alone

Perhaps the most celebrated example of leading one’s peers is Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. As Doris Kearns Goodman described in her book Team of Rivals, Lincoln outwitted his principal opponents (who were his peers) for the Republican nomination for President. Once elected, however, he invited them to become members of his cabinet. The fractious nature of Lincoln’s cabinet meetings is captured well in the Stephen Spielberg movie, Lincoln. For example, it is alleged at a cabinet meeting discussing a draft of Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln asked the assembled members “who opposes the document?”. Everyone raised their hand. Lincoln then said, “who is in favor?”. Lincoln raised his hand and concluded the discussion by saying, “well, I guess the AYES have it.”. During this exchange Lincoln dealt with a conflict of loyalties. What was best for the relationship with his team? What was best for the organization? As President, he preferred the clear support of his cabinet. He had established a good relationship (if not friendship) with several of them, especially Secretary of State Seward. But he firmly believed the best things for the nation was to seek an end to slavery. Consequently, he made the hard leadership decision to stand alone.

The Single Most Crucial Factor?

A new book entitled, The Captain Class by Sam Walker provides some useful insights on dealing with the challenge of peer leadership. Walker set out to determine what was the most important reason for the success of outstanding sports teams? The teams he examined were those that had sustained greatness for at least four seasons instead of a single championship. They include such celebrated franchises as the New York Yankees (1949-53), Boston Celtics (1956-69), Brazilian men’s national soccer (1958-62), Pittsburgh Steelers (1974-80), as well as lesser known teams from rugby, men’s handball, Australian football, and women’s soccer. He wanted to know was the most valuable ingredient money? Management? A unique strategy or associated infrastructure? Having the greatest of all time (GOAT) player?

His research uncovered that the single most crucial factor for a team that achieved and sustained historic greatness was the character of the person who led it – the team captain. He went on to outline the following characteristics of the great team captains:

  • Extreme doggedness and focus in competition
  • Aggressive play that tests the limits of rules/process
  • Willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows
  • A low-key, practical, and democratic communications style
  • Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays
  • Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart
  • Ironclad emotional control

If you are placed in a position where you are leading peers, remember Abraham Lincoln. Peer leadership will be hard and place strain on loyalties to colleagues vs. the entire organization.  But there are also lessons for any leader who is seeking to build teams within their organization and, consequently, must select those for positions of increasing responsibility. The characteristics described by Walker in the Captain’s Class may be useful for any organization.  As we look for our “team captains” should we focus solely on individual performance? Or do we take time to make a more subjective analysis that looks for the factors that might not only build a world championship team but one that sustains itself into the future?

Do you have a great story about how you led your peers? Or, how you have been led? Share your stories with us!


Dr. Jeffrey McCausland, Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership & Strategy, LLC is a retired Army Colonel with over 30 years of unique and challenging leadership experiences. As a retired military officer and veteran, Jeff’s work has taken him all over the world serving in a variety of command and staff positions in places such as the on National Security Council Staff, U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, and the Pentagon.

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