When people speak, write, or think about leadership, they often are thinking about “downward leadership” and influencing people they oversee. “Upward leadership,” or effectively communicating to and fostering a great relationship with one’s leader, is just as critical and has crushed many talented leaders. Much more challenging than both “downward” and “upward” leadership is “self leadership.” Plato wisely stated, “The first and best victory is to conquer self.” If a leader fails to lead self, the leader lacks credibility to lead others and does not have much to offer. Much has been written, and aptly so, about leading oneself.
In my opinion, lateral leadership is the least discussed leadership direction.
By lateral leadership I am referring to leading your peers. You serve alongside them but don’t report to them, and they don’t report to you either. Lateral leadership may be one of the most challenging aspects of leadership because it is not always clear who is responsible for the decision, who should initiate, or who should take the lead. Lateral leadership is always more art than science.
Lateral leadership both develops and proves your leadership in the following leadership disciplines:
When leading laterally, you must excel in communicating with others. You must listen well, develop rapport and trust, and communicate clearly. Leaders must provide clarity of direction and expectation, and this is especially challenging in lateral leadership because competing priorities and expectations often exist. It takes a savvy and gifted leader to communicate for clarity when the reporting lines are blurry. By learning how to communicate well laterally, a leader is simultaneously trained in communicating to leaders and those the leader oversees.
When leading laterally, you must be prepared. Unlike those on your team who have already agreed to listen to you or follow your lead, those you influence laterally are constantly evaluating how your contribution helps the overall mission and their particular area. A leader can (though a leader never should) afford to be more lax in preparation for people under the leader’s supervision. This is never the case in lateral leadership. You have to bring your A-game or you take major steps backward in trust with your peers. Lateral leadership forces preparation, which both develops and proves your commitment to prepare.
Because multiple teams are involved, implementation is most likely to “fall through the cracks” in lateral leadership. Wise teams declare a point-person, but because the point-person does not have formal authority outside the project, it takes a strong leader to implement when hard lines of authority do not exist, which is one big reason lateral leadership prepares you for other leadership environments. If you can implement well without formal authority, you prove you do not need a title to get something done.
Lateral leadership, though often challenging, develops leaders in communication, preparation, and implementation. If you are seeking to be developed as a leader, look for opportunities to lead laterally.