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Leading Your Peers? It Takes Magic

Managing those who can say no to you is a huge challenge. I recommend the Tinker Bell theory.

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Leading your direct reports is challenging. Leading those over whom you do not have direct authority can be next to impossible. Unless of course you have Tinker Bell on your side!

Paula A. Kerger, president and CEO of the Public Broadcasting Company, told The Hollywood Reporter last month that with 350 stations in her organization, ruling by "fiat" does not work. Each station has its own idea of how to do things. "[B]eing the ultimate cheerleader" helps, but Ms. Kerger says, "You have to fully subscribe to the Tinker Bell theory: You have to really believe. If you don't fully buy into the potential and believe that the direction we're going" in is correct, "no one is going to follow you."

Kerger is spot on! Just as the magic of Peter Pan requires absolute belief, so too, does leading people who have the power to walk away from what you are saying. Those who are required to lead their peers, or lead across functions, fight the belief battle daily. What they are struggling for is an idea; what they struggle against is the status quo. Standing between them and fulfillment are peers who need to be persuaded.

Executive leadership requires belief but it comes with power. You either follow or quit. Peer leadership requires conviction that the person in charge is one whom you trust and are willing to follow even though she has no authority over you. So why believe?

Because the peer leader subscribes to the mission! At PBS, stations come together for funding and programming but they do have degrees of autonomy. In large organizations we follow our bosses, but so often things only get done right when people in the middle embrace what the boss says and make it happen. It is not the CEO who persuades others what to do; it is a middle manager who takes the initiative and translates it into terms that people can buy into.

Sometimes that is magical. Peer leader who are good at this are ones who can talk about what change means to individuals, to teams, and to the organization. They do not speak in jargon; they speak in specifics. They break down what needs to be done and they ask people to support it. They do not undercut the magnitude of the effort, or even the discomfort. They play it straight down the middle.

But that is not all. There is another key ingredient to creating buy-in—supporting the work of individuals and teams, or cheerleading as Kerger says. Very often initiatives that cut across functions are met with great resistance. After all few of us like change; the status quo is more comfortable so when push comes to shove we like to stay put.

That is why when an initiative takes hold and begins to effect positive change leaders need to rally behind it and demonstrate that it works. They need to cheer the folks who are driving change and celebrate their achievements. In my experience I have seen senior executives visit the factory floor or hold a meeting in the cafeteria to talk up the good work that individuals and teams have achieved. They become de facto cheerleaders.

Leading those who can say no to you is always a huge challenge but if you can convince them by your actions and your enthusiasm then they might believe in what you are doing. Tinker Bell just might agree.

IMAGE: Everett Collection
Last updated: Mar 1, 2012

JOHN BALDONI is the president of Baldoni Consulting, an executive coaching firm. John speaks widely on leadership and has written 10 leadership books; his newest is Lead With Purpose: Giving Your Organization a Reason to Believe in Itself.
@johnbaldoni




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