Lead with the best version of yourself.

The 7 Be’s of Peer Leadership

by Orlandon Howard

In the military, peer leadership is critical to developing its members’ professional and personal lives. Contrary to the oft-overstated power of traditional superior-subordinate relationships, research has shown the power of influence is the strongest within peer groups. We typically live, work, and even play together, offering substantial opportunities to help one another grow. 

Yet, peer leadership often defaults to social leaders. Their strength of talents or personality makes them the most influential group members. Unfortunately, not everyone with the most sway is the best at leading.

Ideal peer leaders recognize their role and responsibility in these social dynamics. They also have the knowledge, skills, and moral compass to guide or influence people in positive directions. Since good leadership rarely happens by accident, here are a few tips to consider for leading well and developing peers successfully.

1. Be a good example, full-time. Live up to moral, professional, and even social standards. The Army’s quaint Be-Know-Do paradigm outlined in its leadership field manual FM 6-22 captures the golden trinity of what’s expected of its leaders. Being an example means living up to those expectations when your actions are observable and when they’re not.

One’s example can easily be tainted if someone finds gaps between what you portray in public and what you do behind closed doors. It’s often not that difficult to uncover improprieties and hypocrisies. They tend to leak out over time.

Sometimes people even look for inconsistencies to reduce the power of your example. Your life may induce feelings of inadequacy, guilt, or self-convicting thoughts in peers. And that’s okay. Adverse feelings can be the first step in making positive change. But the peer leader must strive to be above reproach to endure the ongoing scrutiny. That means habitually taking the cliché “hard right.” And when you make a mistake, don’t be afraid to flag it. That’s a great example too.

2.  Be a moral leader. Moral leaders have strong awareness and convictions about right and wrong, and they live up to them. Unfortunately, it can be uncommon to have both. Most people know what’s right most of the time but struggle to do it consistently, especially when it runs counter to natural instincts of self-preservation or self-gratification. 

Exemplifying moral fortitude has its own power to influence others positively because it makes upholding its ideals seem more realistic. The presence and even memory of a moral peer leader can have long-term moral influence. It serves as an angel on the right shoulder of peers that guides and holds people accountable to consider and do what’s right.

Setting a good example and communicating moral principles can set moral norms, increase peers’ convictions and commitment to do what’s right, and help them overcome temptations to violate the principles. 

3. Be likable. If peers don’t like you, they will not want to be around you, nor be anything like you. To avoid being disliked, minimize traits and behaviors that rub people wrong. Definitely avoid traits and behaviors related to the “Dark Triad” of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy (anti-social behavior).

To actually be liked, Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, suggested just being friendlier. Much of his advice boils down to being more social and empathetic. It also helps if you like other people, which isn’t easy for some of us. 

Negative or even aloof feelings about people are easy to pick up on, and they tend to get reciprocated. Sadly, this vicious cycle can start with misperceptions. That’s why working on having a more agreeable posture in your verbal and nonverbal communication and even your thoughts is essential.    

4. Be relatable. Peers are drawn to people they can relate to. Relatability is often found in shared interests and experiences. Peer leaders can tease out that common ground by asking peers about their lives and backgrounds. The very act of showing interest increases relatability while uncovering connective areas to share one’s own relevant story. Relatability is also found in shared motivations, aspirations, and even accomplishments. A commonality in these areas can suggest kindred souls, which is great for building deep relational chemistry. 

People also prefer to be led by someone they identify with. It applies to most leadership relationships. Peer leaders perceived as far excelling their peers in competence and ambition tend to be less influential. A perception of over-competence can even degrade peer leaders’ likeability among colleagues who have comparable skills (Pratfall Effect). 

However, the takeaway isn’t to reduce competence or ambition. The advice is to manage the perception. Keep a pulse on how others perceive you by monitoring verbal and non-verbal cues in your encounters. Displays of vulnerability can make you more approachable and help build relatability. Admitting mistakes or ignorance or seeking others’ help or knowledge also signals you’re down-to-earth while uplifting the self-image of your peers, which are effective catalysts for positive influence.  

5. Be present. Peer leadership requires proximity and relational investment such as time and energy. Leadership is ultimately about influence, and influence gains power in proportion to the strength of the relationship. Time with peers strengthens relationships and the opportunity for positive peer leadership.

Understandably, this may be more difficult for introverts than for extroverts. However, even extroverts’ availability is sometimes limited by work and personal obligations that leave thin margins for time with peers. Nevertheless, the introvert and the time-strapped can benefit from the habit of saying yes to invitations. 

Ultimately, it’s about priority hierarchy. We can’t make more time, but we can adjust our priorities. Ask yourself, what’s more important, the desire to finish a podcast or book, a brief you’re working on, OR building camaraderie among colleagues and allowing iron to sharpen iron? The Confucian proverb (adapted) about the imperative of growing people for long-term sustainability suggests the strategic and far-reaching impact of prioritizing people for investment of our most precious resources.                                                  

6. Be persuasive. Everyone has their own agendas, priorities, and values systems, which they spend most of their waking hours advancing. Most people are naturally slow to adopt ideas that interfere or seem incongruent with their own paradigm. Some may even be cynical about the prospect of other people’s ideas. They shirk being manipulated, overpowered, or made to feel inadequate. That means you have to be savvily persuasive to get peers to change their normal. 

Persuasiveness begins with proper motives and intent. Jesus of Nazareth said good fruit can’t come from a bad tree. If the source motive is corrupt, i.e., self-serving or dubious, the outcome will follow suit. Peers can also perceive it quickly and will likely be repulsed by it. Yet, it also can’t be about proselytizing people to adopt your agenda, even if it’s noble. Proper motives are oriented toward the benefit of peers and the collective organization.

The next step is to offer a compelling case for change or your position. Besides the other advice offered, the classic modes of persuasion, ethos, pathos, and logos, help tremendously. Ethos entails establishing the credibility and character of the peer leader; logos, the use of reason and logic; and pathos, emotional appeals with impactful language, stories, etc. They are powerful tools to stimulate internal buy-in and intrinsic motivation for change.

7. Be positive. Negativity and cynicism are inconsistent with good leadership. It’s easy to fall into a pessimistic trap from bad experiences, fatigue, or burnout. Sometimes people even think being critical makes them look cleverer, as they’re the clear-eyed realist. Unfortunately, it has a deep and insidious impact on peers’ attitudes and outlooks and can unnecessarily make pessimism a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or it can repel peers, who smartly guard themselves against negative atmospherics, limiting your sphere of influence. 

Being positive does the opposite. Positivity increases peers’ morale. The good vibes also naturally draw more peers or more frequent interactions. A good amount of cheerfulness is a workplace commodity that makes the day and the environment less stressful and more enjoyable.

Peer leaders can sustain their positivity by practicing resiliency techniques such as always being solutions-focused, “hunting the good stuff,” self-monitoring for signs of burnout, and taking a knee regularly. 

Final thoughts. Good peer leadership is strategic. It’s most often aimed at affecting the way peers think and other underlying factors driving their attitudes and behavior. It can be a big task that takes courage, forethought, patience, and wisdom. Anyone who takes it on contributes to a virtuous chain of positively influencing all members of our profession.

MAJ Orlandon Howard is a U.S. Army public affairs officer (PAO). He has served as a PAO observer-controller-trainer (OC/T), public affairs operations officer, brigade combat team PAO and marketing operations officer. He also served as a Field Artillery Officer, NCO and Soldier during the first half of his career.

The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or the U.S. Army.

Photo Credit: DVIDS Link

1 thought on “The 7 Be’s of Peer Leadership”

  1. Really decent, honest, intelligent advice
    Thank you for sharing this. Makes me feel better and more hopeful about the


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