Leading Your Friends: 9 Ways to Lead Your Former Peers

Congratulations – you’ve just been promoted to Team Lead!

What’s the bad news?  It’s the same team you’ve been on.  How are you going to lead your friends?

One of the hardest things to do as a leader is to lead your peers.  When you all come from the same starting point, what is the basis of your authority? How do you suddenly start to take charge?

Today we’ll talk about what makes this transition so challenging, and give you nine techniques to get started on the right foot at the next level.

Leading Your Friends

Can We Still be Friends?

It can be a touchy situation.  You were among a group of equals, everyone on about the same footing.  Maybe you hung out socially, let your hair down a little, complained about the boss together.  Then suddenly, somebody named you to lead the team.

Now your loyalties are torn. You want to remain true to your friends.  But you are also responsible for the team.  You have to be impartial, treat everyone fairly, hold people accountable.

How is that going to work?  What happens when one of your friends messes up?

You can’t give a “pass” for bad behavior.  If you grant special favors for friends it undermines your credibility with everyone else.

And if you used to be that person who was always taking taking short cuts the boss wouldn’t approve of, it’s going to be hard to suddenly expect that others don’t do what you’ve been doing.

As David Dye writes writes at Trailblaze.com, the transition to leader will be less difficult if you already lead from where you are, even before you have that formal title.

If you always set a good example, treat all others with respect, and focus on being a good teammate, it is going to be a lot easier to step into your new role.

Want to be a leader? Be a great teammate. Click To Tweet

So start with that – then check out these nine techniques you can use to help you make that transition effectively (notice that I didn’t say “smoothly”).

9 Ways to Break Out of Your Peer Group

1. Mark the occasion.  It helps if there is some event that clearly marks the transition to formal leadership.  It could be as simple as the boss gathering everyone and making an announcement. Or, as in the military, a more formal event involving new insignia of rank, forms of address, and manners.

It helps to make the change feel official so that everyone recognizes the the starting point of a new chapter.

2. Start over.  Face it, it’s going to be awkward at first telling your friends what to do.  So do what a leader does: deal with the awkwardness, and not let it linger in the room like a funny smell that no one wants to acknowledge.

Get one-on-one with those you are closest to and get the facts out in the open.

“We are still friends, and I value our friendship.  But now that they have made me team lead, I’m responsible for the entire team now.  That might mean that sometimes I have to make decisions or do things that you don’t agree with.  I hope you are OK with that.”

If they really are your friend, they will agree to deal with it.  If they don’t, maybe they weren’t a true friend to begin with; give them a little while to adjust, but it might be time move on.

3. Move out.  The moment any one my Soldiers was promoted to the rank of Sergeant, we always moved him out of his barracks room and into a different one. Having a little physical space between leader and led can be helpful.

Living or working too closely with just a small part of the team can impart a sense of unfairness, and you may be tempted to micro-manage.  If you can change cubicles, switch desks, or alter where you hang your hat, the physical distance can help.

Familiarity breeds contempt - Aesop Click To Tweet

4. Build support.  In fact, while you are talking one-on-one with your friends, ask for their support.  Liane Davey writing for Harvard Business Review suggests asking for help in specific areas.  You don’t suddenly have all the answers now that you are the leader.

As leader you don't suddenly have all the answers; cultivate the support you'll need. Click To Tweet

When you tell them that you are counting on their help, you are telling them that you still value what they have to offer.

Related:  What to Do When They Know More Than You

5. Give them some space. After being named a project lead at Jet Propulsion Laboratories, Adam Steltzner continued to go to every “Thirsty Thursday” party night with his team.  In “The Right Kind of Crazy” he tells us that he eventually learned that he shouldn’t have.

You will have a desire to be liked by everyone on the team and keep up your former ways.  But the team needs room to let off steam, complain about the boss, and relax.  They can’t do that if you are always there.  Give them some space to let their hair down without you around.

6. Build a new peer group.  Speaking of friends, it’s time for you to cultivate some new ones.  There’s nothing wrong with the ones you have, but they won’t be dealing with leadership issues like you will.  You can’t confide in them, and they don’t have any experiences they can share to help you solve the new challenges you’ll face.

You need to forge new relationships with people who are in the same boat as you.  Reach out to the other leaders at your level to share experiences, trade best practices, and build support.

Related:  5 Connections You Need for a Powerful Leadership Network

7. Get some knowledge.  Another tried and true method is to get equipped with additional knowledge that your peers may not have.  If your organization offers any leadership training, ask to be included.  If there are other teams like yours, go visit them, meet their leaders, see what they do, and learn what you can.

When you have a broader understanding of your environment and greater experience, it will give you an edge when trying to lead your team.

8. Get connected.  Another way to get some knowledge is to make sure you are well connected with your boss.  Ask to meet with them one-on-one.  Get their vision and goals, open the lines of communication with them so you understand their expectations and can lead your team to meet them.

As the leader, you represent the team to your boss, and you represent your boss to the team.  Build that special connection, and your access will help you influence your team.

9. Deal with resistance.  The fact that you were the one who was tapped for leadership could cause a little jealousy or hurt feelings.  You might see eye-rolling, hear sarcastic comments, or experience minor acts of passive-aggressive sabotage.  You have to deal with this immediately or it might only get worse.

Don’t make a scene.  Talk to them off to the side, stay calm, and ask for their support.  If they are doing something that you used to do, acknowledge it, then explain your new perspective on things.

Leading Your Friends – The Takeaway

It’s great that you are moving up in the world, and it doesn’t mean you have to lose your friends.  But if you want to make the transition to leader successfully, it’s important to recognize that some things will have to change.

If you are a person of good character who has earned the trust of your teammates, you are already off to a good start.

Using one or more of the approaches above will help you and your friends mark the transition point and understand how to work through the challenges of your new reality.

What else can you do to become a successful leader?  Check out the Essential Leadership Skills for the New Manager course to build your leadership skills and focus your team-building efforts.  The first several videos are free, and I bet your friends will notice the difference…

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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