Primus inter pares

It is incredibly challenging to lead people who have freely given their consent to follow.

A man who becomes a prince by favour of the people finds himself standing alone, and he has near him either no one or very few not prepared to take orders. (Machiavelli, The Prince IX)

You are assigned to a working committee. Your committee, in turn, is assigned the responsibility of appointing its own chair. So here you are, sitting around a table with your peers. Each of you brings fairly equal abilities to the group and you are all competent to the task at hand. However, you yourself are nominated to serve as chair, and the motion carries. You are now, effectively, the leader of the group, as chosen by your colleagues.

On the surface, situations like this seem ideal: what better opportunity to lead others towards a common objective than to have their ‘buy in’ and vote right from the start? However, as many of us have learned, influencing your equals is one of the greatest challenges of leadership.

Consider democracy, for example. The principle core of democracy is the idea that the people — not aristocrats, overlords, or oligarchs — are sovereign. In their sovereignty, the populous thus elects leaders to rule in turn. However, once elected, the ruler finds herself in an inherent contradiction: how do you lead with authority in a nation that believes every citizen has an equal share in their sovereignty? How do you rule people who are organized around the belief that all rule? How does the ‘class’ of leadership function in a society that explicitly states that power does not belong to a special class? (Kane & Haig 2012)

Whether elected to chair a committee or oversee a country, the peer-selected leader faces an enormous credibility challenge. When leading equals, legitimacy is under constant review and consideration: ‘Hey, any one of us also has as much right to lead as you do.’ Superiors can appeal to rank, the wealthy can purchase compliance, and tyrants can utilize their military, but the leader who is only the ‘first among equals’ has nothing but the temporary, fragile consent of others, who only cautiously surrender their own autonomy in order to follow. This is a recipe for skepticism and scrutiny. The peer-leader is always on shaky ground.

In these contexts, leadership is synonymous with persuasion. We might even imagine that leadership is persuasion. There is only one way to lead your peers: you must inspire and convince them to see, think, and behave differently. If you are in a position to just bark out orders and expect results, you are leading underlings, not equals. Thus, the leadership of equals represents the height of leadership itself, because followers who are free to choose their leader also have the option to simply stop following whenever they choose.

Today, if you set out to lead among your equals, remember that you exert leadership only to the extent that you inform the perspectives, hopes, goals, and (ultimately) the actions of others.