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Commentary: Keys to Peer Leadership From an Unlikely Source

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As a small-business CEO observed a window washer at the Atlanta airport one day, she asked what she thought was a straightforward question, “What’s the secret to window washing?”

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“No secret, ma’am," the window cleaner said, as he continued working. “I just focus on keeping on with my tools and my experience. I keep on going.”

The master continued working with repeated, slick motions, his washer remained fixed to the glass, leaving not one smudge. And, true to his word, he kept on going.

When the CEO asked what was in the blue water, the cleaning professional smiled and said, “I can’t tell you that. If you knew that, you could do my job.” Then, before working on another pane, he said, “It is very special, though.”

When a professional window cleaner uses just the right combination of resources—minimal tools; years of experience; a flowing, non-stop motion; and a secret concoction of suds—his or her work is efficient, engaging and looks natural—perhaps easy—to those who observe.

Unlike the window washer, many team leaders don’t find their work to be efficient, easy or appear natural. These leaders often do not have degrees in leadership; they are promoted because they are good at their jobs. Their former colleagues and friends now report to these “peer leaders.”

There is a skill to leading your former peers without encountering resistance, resentment and regret. When your toolbox contains a simple collection of thinking, communicating and acting that is coherent, ordered and intentional, your leadership appears natural. When you’re charged with leading a team of your peers or former peers, the right combination of resources makes all the difference. The following techniques should be at the core of every peer leader’s toolbox.

1. Minimal tools keep you focused. The most effective leader uses only one tool: his or her personality. One great peer leader uses his thirst for understanding and information. When a member of his team enters his office, he asks that person to be the teacher while he plays the role of student.

“Any questions I ask are merely a student asking,” he explains. “Then, I never use the words ‘I’ or ‘you’…I only use the words ‘we’ and ‘us.’ I want them walking out of my office feeling better than when they walked in.”

By using the mindset of education, the pressure is removed from his "teacher" so that no question is off limits. This philosophy sets the tone for education and teamwork. If, instead, he were to use his intellectual curiosity to demonstrate that only he knew the correct answer, he could face resentment. The best peer leaders learn to harness their personality to inspire trust and teamwork.

2. Experience gives you credibility. Just as window washers have well-exercised wrists, your team wants to see that you still need and relate to them.

While your team is working to create the next product, researching relevant case law, or driving across town at a moment’s notice to meet with a customer, they want to know that you’re there with them. Sometimes that means that they want your hands working alongside theirs, and sometimes it just means that they want to know that you understand their daily routines, frustrations and joys. Regardless of which approach your team members prefer, they want you to guide them in the next and right direction.

Your team will remember that you were there with them when you encourage. Today’s culture makes it easy for bosses to find faults, but you will have much greater influence when you frequently ask this question of your team members: “You know what I liked about what you did (or said)?” Be relentless as you look to find the ways that their input, skills and contributions have benefited the entire team. This is always of interest to the receiver; no one has ever responded, “No, I don’t want to know what you liked.”

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