Are you building a culture of sideways leadership ?

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “Everything changes and nothing stands still.” Well, you can put that one in the file marked ‘timeless classics’. Because surely, our determination to keep pace with change is stronger than it’s ever been – at a time when words like “agile” and “innovation” bounce around the corridors of corporate Australia on a daily basis.

In today’s economy, ideas represent the greatest form of currency – and the barriers to entry are low. As big institutional players frantically tour Silicon Valley in search of the secret Antidote to Disruption, their biggest threat is probably sitting in a home office somewhere, quietly building a platform of ideas capable of stealing away large segments of the market.

Any organisation serious about keeping pace – whether through innovation, customer responsiveness or speed-to-market – must create an environment where ideas can truly thrive. They must let go of slow and cumbersome models of leadership borne of the industrial age. Managers must loosen the reins and encourage people to think for themselves; to generate ideas and find ways to bring them to life, without waiting for someone with more authority to tell them what to do.

To get this right, organisations must forge a culture of lateral leadership – where people at all levels are empowered to reach out across the business, regardless of their role or title, to build willing and enthusiastic support for their ideas and initiatives. At the heart of lateral leadership lies the gentle art of buy-in – a special kind of influence that puts aside attempts to coerce, compel or manipulate. Building buy-in is not just about getting people to work with you.  It’s about doing so in ways that generate energy, commitment and genuine cooperation.


Building buy-in and fostering cooperation is one of those skills that seem to come more naturally to some people than others. But it is something that can be learned and mastered by anyone. Here are 4 key tips to getting it right:

Tip #1: Have a Big So What

When it comes to building buy-in, there’s a big difference between someone who exudes belief in their ideas and someone who seems to be simply going through the motions. People who fall into the latter category are couriers, and while couriers might be good at delivering information, that’s about the extent of their commitment. Couriers carry information, but not leadership. In contrast, people who exude conviction are catalysts, and they’re much better placed to capture people’s attention and imagination. Catalysts not only want to initiate a change but to achieve that change. Their passion and commitment is infectious.

Becoming a catalyst means taking the time to establish why your idea really matters – to you, to your team, to your customers. To get to that point, ask yourself “so what?” in advance – and keep asking it, until you can come up with a truly compelling reason for change: the Big So What.

Tip #2: Adopt a What’s Possible? Stance

Lateral leaders need to balance their passion and desire to generate support for an idea with a willingness to listen and be open to suggestions. Often the desire to drive a particular agenda can cause leaders to become single-minded (or worse, over-zealous), which can lead people to switch off.

Your ability to successfully influence others paradoxically requires you to let go of the reins in a conversation. To lean into people’s concerns and reluctance to embrace an idea, and to whole-heartedly welcome pushback into the conversation.  This is what I call a what’s possible? stance: an attitude of curiosity, creativity and commitment to the best possible outcome – not simply the outcome you already have in mind. This helps you to remain flexible, adaptive, and responsive as you enter the unpredictable terrain of building people’s support and cooperation around an idea.

Adopting a what’s possible? stance takes courage, because it asks you to let go of control of the conversation. But doing so is often the very thing that creates space for others to become part of a decision and, ultimately, buy into it.

Tip #3: Read the play

In the sporting world, there’s a concept called “reading the play”. This refers to the way some players read the game as it’s unfolding and make judgments about how to best adapt to the game.

In much the same way, the best lateral leaders are good at reading the play in their own organisation and adjusting their strategies and their approach. No matter how ready you might feel to get moving on an idea, if the prevailing conditions aren’t in your favour, you might well be sending the idea to its early death. Consider things such as the current mood of your stakeholders; whether there are major distractions or competing priorities vying for people’s attention right now; and how the current social landscape (read: organisational politics) might impact your ability to get things off the ground.

Tip #4: Make action the focus

One of the most common things that thwarts lateral leadership is the inability to get people to take action. Simply getting others to say yes isn’t enough – even if they mean it. Ultimately, it’s action that matters and the best lateral leaders work hard to convert agreement into action.

This means mastering the language of action and accountability – not just ideas and intent. Be the first to ask action-focused questions such as: “How do we make this happen?”, “What will get in the way?”, and “How do we make sure this doesn’t fizzle out after the first month?” And then ensure everyone is crystal clear about what they expect of one another.

As a rule of thumb, spend at least half as much time discussing implementation as you spent getting people’s agreement in the first instance.

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