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Lateral Leadership

January 4, 2010

Although the main focus of my blog is writing, I occassionally have cause to write about something a little far afield from that general topic.  This is particularly true when my education is involved.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m currently participating in the Leadership Development academy at the university where I’m working on my MBA.  This is sort of an extra-curricular class – it’s not necessary for graduation, but once enrolled, it’s treated like a class.  On a recent Leadership Academy assignment, I had to create a blog post on some articles I’ve read on leadership.  Since I had to go through the effort to write that, I thought I’d share it here, as well:

Lateral Leadership

I had a bit of trouble, at first, selecting an article to blog about.  At first, I read “The Fantasy Preventing Us from Becoming Better Leaders” by Marshall Goldsmith.  It was about a topic I’m struggling with right now: time management.  But the article didn’t have much meat to sink my teeth into – it was less than a page long.  Then I read “Five Steps to Building Your Personal Leadership Brand” by David Ulrich and Norm Smallwood.  I just took a Brand Management class and one of my big take-aways from that class (and from the diversity conference) was about developing my own personal brand.  But something bothered me about the article: it seemed to be written as if assuming I was already a leader, and needed to refine my style.  But in my own organization, I’m effectively the bottom man on the totem pole, and I lack any formal authority.  Were there leadership articles with advice for people in my situation?

So then I happened on “How to Lead When You’re Not the Boss” (from the Harvard Management Update) and “Exerting Influence Without Authority” by Lauren Keller Johnson.  These two articles were about the concept of “Lateral Leadership”, and were full of good advice on skills and traits to develop to improve lateral leadership capabilities.  For me, it was an interesting perspective, particularly as an employee in a company that has a very top-down leadership approach.

The articles suggest that networking is a key component of effective lateral leadership, along with skills in integrative negotiating and persuasion.  They also suggest that the acts of setting goals, reviewing goals and key learnings, engaging others, and providing feedback are activities that constitute de facto leadership, even in the absence of formal authority.  To make this all work, teams need effective social chemistry.

Ultimately, what the articles boil down to is the idea that individuals who competently exercise important leadership skills will effectively play a leadership role, regardless of formal power structures.  It’s an intriguing idea.  But it’s the last part of the “Exerting Influence” column that’s the real ringer: for this to work, you need the right environment, including the social chemistry, and support from the organization in facilitating the development of this chemistry.  One major implication of this is that organizations need to be open to new ideas from all sources within the company, and to cultivating and supporting talent and skill at all levels.  Organizations that cling to formal, hierarchical structures will miss opportunities to develop leadership and enhance the organization as a whole.

One important insight I gained from these articles was how to develop and work on my own leadership skills by focusing on improving my networking abilities, finding ways to get more comfortable around people I work with, and taking part in setting and reviewing goals.  But another very important insight I gained was a mechanism for evaluating and understanding how organizations view leadership and authority, and the relationship between the two, and what that tells me about the organizational culture.  I think this learning will be key in my long-term career development.

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