As part of her book on lateral leadership, leadership expert Tanja Ineichen and her co-author asked more than 100 HR managers in Germany, Austria and Switzerland what skill they thought was particularly important for lateral leaders. Fifty-six per cent of respondents said, ‘The ability to win commitment’.

Late­ral leader­ship is nothing new. It happens day in, day out in the work­place, without being called by this name: speci­fi­cally, when employees without the power to issue instruc­tions get others to perform parti­cu­lar tasks. Their colle­agues then volun­t­a­rily do their bit without follo­wing an offi­cial order – and are often more than happy to do so. Howe­ver, late­ral leader­ship is growing in importance as hier­ar­chi­cal struc­tures are fading into the back­ground. There are various reasons for this. For instance, modern-day employees are keen to have more of a say and receive grea­ter free­dom. In addi­tion, they often also work remo­tely and decen­trally, which makes it harder to moni­tor them. Tanja Inei­chen, Head of Leader­ship & Trans­for­ma­tion at the Gott­lieb Dutt­wei­ler Insti­tute GDI and co-author of a book on late­ral leader­ship, has also noti­ced a trend towards enhan­ced inter­di­sci­pli­na­rity as a conse­quence of chan­ges in society: ‘We’re faced with new situa­tions that can leave us overst­ret­ched, but they also have the poten­tial to gene­rate new deve­lo­p­ments.’ She belie­ves thin­king and acting in an inter­di­sci­pli­nary way can help in this respect. ‘Selec­ting the right people to work toge­ther within an agreed frame­work is crucial for successful trans­for­ma­tion and innovation.’ 

Commit­ment means ‘coming on board’

For her book, Tanja Inei­chen and co-author Gunther Fürst­ber­ger asked more than 100 HR mana­gers what they thought the key skill was for a late­ral leader. ‘The ability to win commit­ment’ was the most frequent answer, by a wide margin. Commit­ment means nothing other than ‘coming on board’, says Inei­chen: the readi­ness to jointly set off on a jour­ney to put a late­ral project into prac­tice. Commit­ment is so important because someone in a late­ral leader­ship role has no right to issue instruc­tions. This means they cannot impose sanc­tions if someone doesn’t do as they’ve been asked: they rely on people doing their work on a volun­t­ary basis. To achieve this, Inei­chen belie­ves two main crite­ria need to be met. Namely, employees need to have trust in the late­ral leader and the belief that it makes sense to under­take the task at hand. ‘To win commit­ment, the late­ral leader must be willing to create bene­fits for all parties – not just them­sel­ves.’ In addi­tion, the goals need to be clear to ever­yone and be viewed by ever­yone as being correct and important. Of course, the late­ral leader them­sel­ves also needs to be commit­ted: it is only possi­ble to lead late­rally if you yours­elf back a project. As a result, late­ral leaders don’t legi­ti­mise them­sel­ves via a posi­tion of power, but via their presence, exper­tise, nego­tia­ting skills or useful network. 

Late­ral leader­ship works when its goals serve the custo­mer, says Inei­chen: ‘Parti­ci­pa­tion needs to be an appe­al­ing choice for ever­yone invol­ved.’ If that’s not the case, late­ral leader­ship can hit a wall: ‘If nobody’s willing to join in and be led, late­ral leader­ship can’t exist either.’ Howe­ver, when manage­ment among equals works well, employees are more moti­va­ted, more produc­tive and more loyal. In short, they’re more satisfied.

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