You may be wondering ‘how on earth can anyone lead from the middle’? How many times have you turned to a good friend, mentor or co-worker for advice? And how many times have you gone to the same person over and over again? If you think about it, it’s likely that person is a leader within his or her circle of influence. A person may not have the official title of ‘leader’, but he or she really is a leader. That person is leading from the middle.
I can remember a conversation with a good friend who happened to be an employee of an organization we’d just been merged with. Due to his role, he had no particular reason to know what I did or how I did it, yet, in a conversation about what was going on with me and my particular role, he let me know just how wide my circle of influence was. Yes, I was doing my job with the particular group of people I worked with on a daily basis. But my circle of influence had grown dramatically due to an additional role with educating the workforce (a huge portion of them) about the changes. My friend had heard from other employees about me, and how I conducted myself in these sessions. My circle of influence was huge and I didn’t even realize it.
On the other hand, do you find yourself being the go-to person? How many times do individuals approach you and ask your opinion or your advice on important topics? If you find this to be happening then you are a leader, too. You may have the official title of ‘leader’ or you may not. But make no mistake, you are a leader.
I have been a leader with the title of ‘leader’ and I’ve found myself leading from the middle. This book is all about the lessons learned from being in that ‘middle’ position. It’s about leadership styles I’ve observed and it’s about my own preferred leadership style.
Leading from the middle can have its joys and its challenges. Among some of the challenges have been hearing and knowing what’s going on in the trenches of front-line employees, hearing and sometimes knowing what’s going on in the executive leadership circles and having little power to affect positive changes. It’s kind of like being a fly on the wall, able to observe all that’s going on, able to analyze and discern solutions to problems, but yet unable to get the ones with real power to listen.
As you can imagine, this can be a frustrating position, this leading from the middle. In my experience, those at the top are usually short-lived positions. When changes need to be made or when companies get bought, sold or taken over, those positions at the top are usually the first to be replaced. It’s a precarious place to be. So even with the frustrations of leading from the middle, I find the joys of that kind of leadership to far outweigh the challenges.
So what are the joys? Top of my list is to enjoy a relationship with colleagues where you can have a positive influence on their personal and work lives. Do those of us who work together become best friends? No. I wouldn’t advise that. Best friends working together can present a host of challenges that are better avoided. You’ll find things about your friend and his/her work style that you probably don’t agree with and that can lead to the end of a friendship. Who wants that to happen? I don’t. The better position to take is to be a confidant and ‘friend’ at work but not necessarily in your personal life. Work can be an extension of your personal philosophy and can be mission-based which is even more personal. But that doesn’t mean your colleagues are your closest friends.
So what is it about these mid-leader work relationships I like? I like getting to know those who report to me or work with me so I can help them become even better at what they do. It’s one of my particular strengths to be a ‘maximizer’ *, which is a person who likes to see people become more than what they are, to learn more and to be more effective. I like seeing the smiles on their faces or the ‘aha’ moment when they truly understand what’s going on and how it got accomplished.
This leads to the second thing I like about leading from the middle. I like creating a team effort for any project or ongoing business model. It makes me cringe when I hear someone say ‘that’s my boss’ or ‘I work for’ so and so. I like to create situations where the team is all ‘in it’ together, where no one person is the only one responsible for decision making. I desire a group where everyone takes equal responsibility.
Does that mean I run away from making the final decision? No, it just means I understand the value of each and every person’s input and perspective. Then I will take all that information into one package and make a final decision. Being the only person who gathers all the information and then makes a decision that influences multiple lives without their point of view being heard is not my style or preference.
There’s another advantage of leading from the middle. You usually don’t get the full blame for unpopular decisions. There’s someone at the top of the heap to take that blame. Yes, it’s selfish to feel that way, but there it is. Have I ever gone to the top executive in charge and voiced my opinion about an unpopular decision? Yes. Sometimes logical explanations were given and sometimes not. It’s a good exercise to have an open conversation with leaders on the executive level. Sometimes one can expand a circle of influence to have a positive effect.
So there you go, leading from the middle has its rewards and its challenges. From this point on, you’ll hear more about what I’ve learned, and hopefully, it will help you learn a few things about leadership, too.