When you work with a peer, do you consider yourself the leader and the other person the follower? Or, do you believe that the other person is the leader, and you are the follower? No, there is really no thought of leadership because there is no thought of ranking. The word peer does not create separate categories ”it is a holistic notion, where a diversity of talents and abilities is recognized within the idea of equality of worth and value. With peer-based organizations, we can achieve unity in diversity and diversity in unity. A good friend, Sterling Adams, suggested that this is what happens in a pickup game of football.
I had only recently participated in my family's traditional "Turkey Bowl" over the Thanksgiving holiday. My son, brothers, cousins, uncles, and I self-organized into two teams and played a rowdy game of touch football. There was no "boss", but depending on our comparative talents, we volunteered to begin playing the different positions with the shared purpose of helping our team win. In the huddle , there was no official lead play caller, but we all suggested what might work given our experience of the previous play. We came to consensus quite quickly, and almost always rotated positions so everyone had a turn at quarterback, receiver, and lineman. The team really was, in miniature , a society of peers. These games are always fiercely competitive, and no one enjoys losing, but rank is not even a consideration. On those rare occasions when we invite someone new to play, and that person considers himself better than the rest of the team and so entitled to take over and dominate the game, the members of this unlucky team tend to quickly lose interest and try to finish the game as soon as possible. Of course, we make sure that person is not invited back the following year.
With this experience in mind, we enjoy two key insights in "playing" with peers that relate to my earlier observations. First, it is important for success that decisions be made by those closest to where the real work is being done. (In fact, the case could be made for defining the leader as the person doing the actual work.) That doesn't happen in an organization that's secretive and protective of information and power. For instance, in our pickup game there was one play where I was at quarterback, and I wanted to send Ryan, the wide receiver, on a quick passing route. He recommended, instead, a long bomb, knowing what I didn't know: namely, that the man defending him was rather slow. Ryan knew he could easily run past him. I deferred the decision to him, and we subsequently scored a touchdown on the long pass.
This leads to the second key insight: Genuine communication will only occur between peers. Had Ryan not believed we were working together on this team as peers, he would not have made the suggestion he did, I would not have yielded the decision to him, and we would not have scored a touchdown. On those unfortunate, yet thankfully rare, occasions when I have played with someone who thought he was my superior , and everyone else's, none of us "inferior" players offered suggestions. We refused any responsibility and ceded all the play calling to the dominator, no matter how lousy it was, and told him what he wanted to hear. We learned quickly that only by gaining his approval did we have a chance that he would pass the ball to us.
I was reminded of this type of "ball hog" when I was consulting with a high-tech company in London. I was trying to help them organize a decision-making process that would gather input from all the employees , when I encountered stiff resistance from the senior executive. He bluntly informed me that employees should have no influence on the direction or decisions of the company. They were, he told me, as if imparting some esoteric management knowledge, " meant to be used like light bulbs : you screw 'em in, you turn 'em on, you burn 'em out. Then you replace 'em." I did not find even one of this executive's direct reports who found his or her work in this company to be either joyful or meaningful, and I held numerous private conversations with these reports in a four-month period. Yet no leader ”not just an arrogant leader like this one ”can escape the damage to relationships in a rank-based organization. Even the most benign and open -minded leaders will in the end create dependence and compliance in their direct reports, not interdependence and commitment.