How do I lead people who used to be my peers?

Chris Williams

Taking on a leadership position for the first time can be challenging in any organisation. Learning to lead your former peers can be even more so.

Chris Williams is the director of Studio House, a 20-bed drug and alcohol rehabilitation project based in Nottingham. It is a self-established peer culture run by staff and volunteers. The idea behind it is to develop a sustainable, self-supporting community to work as a recovery process.

Studio House was set up in 2003. Chris was volunteering there four years ago at the same time as training in social care. The founder was leaving and the project was going to close, so he put himself forward to take it over.

This means he has had to develop his leadership style “on the job” and work out how to lead, inspire and manage people who used to be his peers.

How does he handle the balancing act?

Chris says: “It is a constant experiment. It takes the superhuman and I still haven’t achieved it. There is a contradiction in the level of responsibility even in a peer relationship. You have to be willing to get challenged and held accountable for the same things as other staff, but at the same time I have to do certain things to uphold our statutory responsibilities. Or if there is something that will affect our reputation. They don’t always understand what I have to do and that is hard.”

In the past he hasn’t always managed to walk the fine line between being friends and being a manager. “I realised I was having quite intimate relationships with people around me that at some point I was having to discipline.”

During his time on the Whole Person Facilitating programme at Oasis, Chris was challenged over where he stood in some of his relationships and has implemented changes back at Studio House.

Work of this kind is highly demanding and requires personal investment – in working together and with the clients.

Chris says: “Because of the way we work we are very vulnerable. When you give so much of yourself, you open yourself up and it’s hard to protect yourself. But the rewards outweigh the demands tenfold.”

Therapeutic support is there in the form of monthly staff group meetings and one-to-one counselling. Staff are also supported through supervision and they have all been on Skills for Change, the programme that introduces the Oasis Seven Stage Model for Effective Relationships.

In difficult times they make the effort to connect socially and there is always consultation and discussion about any changes that are coming.

How has he dealt with these challenges?

“I have personally invested in my own development. I recognised I would need that to be able to offer anything else to the company.”

Chris has three pieces of advice for others who are new to a leadership role:

  • “Make sure you have your own personal space. You need a one-to-one worker external to your organisation to help you work stuff out.
  • “If you are going to work in this kind of environment then everybody decides what the values are going to be. We have statutory processes, systems and routines that we work to, but our values are what drives us, so everybody needs to be clear on what they are.
  • “Investment is really important, and being really clear with yourself and with the group about who is really invested. Turning up and being a volunteer when everything is going well is one thing, but when it hits the fan you need to be clear about people’s level of investment.”

Inspiring Leaders – quick questions

What was your first job?

Labourer for a plasterer

What are you working on at the moment?

Putting in a new business plan, future development

What gets you out of bed in the morning?

My son

What keeps you up at night?

Stress and worry – about getting over loaded, feeling overwhelmed, or not knowing the answers

What makes a great leader?


When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Architect or an actor

What do you wish someone had told you when you started out?

Drugs are bad

What do you do to relax?

Play the guitar