5 key rules for leading from the middle

LeadershipLet’s face it, most people lead from the middle, or at least they try to.

Since there is typically just one seat AT THE TOP in any given organization, others who aspire to leadership MUST do it from somewhere in the pack, right?

In that same vein, even the phrase “middle-managers” is a bit misleading because it includes everyone in a position of authority who is NOT the CEO. The other 99.9%.

Managing what you do from your position of authority is the basic prerequisite for being competent at what you do. But it is not leading from the middle. That is something very different.

For one thing, leading from the middle means taking on responsibility for things you have no anointed authority over. It means having to pick targets not always found on your usual field of battle.

Leading from the middle involves running head-on into challenges. You’re asking for it when you do that!

And it means first and foremost, taking care of those who are expecting you to look out for them.

I Dare You
Leading from the middle

I bring this up because there was an excellent comment today from a reader of this blog that bears repeating.

It comes from Tom Kinnane, a marketing and sales VP in Maryland.

“I’ve always looked at leading as taking care of my people and getting them what they need to succeed,” he wrote, “but being as hard as possible on my bosses to make necessary changes, provide resources, etc.

“The people on top don’t fund the business, the people lower down do. Probably a bit backwards from what is normally thought about how bosses should do things.”

No argument here: Holding upper managers’ feet to the fire to get what you need so your people can get the job done is an example of leading at its very best.

For those who have tried, you know leading from the middle has a learning curve that never truly ends, because the issues keep changing and there are always more challenges coming at you.

Ease the curve

So, if you do decide to head out and do battle for the things your people need and deserve, here are five key steps to help make that curve a little less daunting:

Gather info. Create opportunities to go on fact-finding missions. The key is to ask, listen and observe. It’s been said that the first step to good judgment is information. So, whether you’re running a three-person call center or a global distribution system, judgment will give you a framework for evaluating any situation, and for making the right call.

Be the hub. To manage from the middle means you are the center point, or hub, of a wheel with communication spokes that radiate out in all directions. You are not so much communicating up, across and down, which can be segmented. But you are communicating outward to all, which like a good wheel, can help you gain traction and momentum much more effectively.

Sell your people. What your people accomplish at work is the brand you have to sell. The reputation of your department is your best asset – or liability – depending on how others see it. Stay sensitive to the level of credibility your department has, and to keep the credibility high. Can key executives connect what you and your department do to the company’s mission?

Make yourself wanted. Senior managers have a bad habit of not making enough time for the people under them. They are busy, too. So it pays to bring something to the table when requesting a meeting with higher ups. A tit-for-tat. “I’d like a few minutes today to bounce an idea off  you and while we’re meeting, I’ll tell you all about … (and fill in the blank with something that manager has been waiting to hear.)

Abandon myths. These are excuses that bounce around in everyone’s head. The sooner you set them aside, the more prepared you become mentally to truly lead from the middle.

  •  “I can’t lead if I am not at the top.”
  • “When I get to the top, then I’ll learn to lead.”
  • “If I were on top, then people would follow me.”
  •  “When I get to the top, I’ll be in control.”
  • “When I get to the top, I’ll no longer be limited.”

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