Leading from the Middle of the Pack: Part 2

In many areas of life, the middle is the most miserable place to be.

Where’s the worst seat on an airplane? The middle. Aisle seats are roomier, and easier to climb in and out of; window seats offer a better view along with a place to rest your head.

What’s the most difficult stage of school? Arguably it’s middle school–the awkward phase between the carefree days of elementary school and the growing independence of high school.

Even being born in the middle seems undesirable! Firstborns enjoy a period of undivided attention from their parents, and the baby of the family typically gets doted on and spoiled. While the eldest child gets all the glory, and the youngest child gets away with everything, the middle child often feels forgotten. Indeed, an entire sitcom has been built around the travails of middle children (Malcolm in the Middle).

Making the Most of the Middle

My contention is that leading from the middle of an organization also comes with its share of challenges. In this lesson, I’ll identify three of the foremost difficulties, and I’ll give recommendations for dealing with them. My hope is that you’ll gain insight on how best to navigate the challenges of supporting those above you while at the same time influencing those under your supervision.

The Tension Challenge

Being caught in the middle causes increased pressure. As a middle manager, you possess some power, but only indirectly. You depend on a higher-ranking leader to empower you with the resources and authority to do your job. Also, you are expected to take initiative, but you must always be careful not to overstep your bounds. Finally, you’re subject to an organization culture that stems from the personality of your leader and affects the people on your team. You have limited influence on the culture from your position in the middle, but at the same time you do not have enough clout to change the company’s DNA.

Nothing frees a person from tension like clear lines of responsibility. As a leader in the middle, proactively seek a precise understanding of what’s expected of you. Then, initiate an ongoing dialogue with your supervisor concerning those expectations. Once you’re clear on what areas you “own,” be careful not to abuse your power, to undermine your leader’s authority, or to violate your boss’s trust by shirking your responsibilities.

The Frustration Challenge

Following an ineffective leader gives rise to frustration. Some leaders refuse to delegate responsibilities, or even when they do, they micromanage every detail. Other leaders simply do not have the experience or skill required to succeed in their position and subsequently they limit the team’s effectiveness. Still other leaders seek self-advancement at the expense of everyone else. Over the course of time, they wreck relationships and sap morale.

While it can be infuriating to work for controlling, incompetent, or self-centered leaders, your job isn’t to fix them. Rather, as a middle manager, your task is to find ways to add value to them. With this end in mind, fight the urge to withdraw from a relationship with an inept leader. Instead, search for your leader’s strengths and find ways to maximize them. When possible, seek permission to develop a game plan to complement your leader’s weaknesses. You must tread carefully here, not offering your opinion on a leader’s shortcomings unless asked about them. However, if you get the opportunity to have a discussion about her weaknesses, look for ways to shift workloads and responsibilities so that your leader can spend the bulk of her time in her strength zone. Finally, tactfully expose your leader to good leadership resources (books, articles, etc.).

The Multi-Hat Challenge

Leaders in the middle have to be versatile enough to handle demands from those above them, partner with those beside them, and give direction to those below them. Without setting the vision, they must be able to champion it to their team. As an additional complication, leaders in the middle are often responsible to meet deadlines without necessarily being the person directly doing the work. Furthermore, they must constantly discern when to assert their leadership and when to play a background role.

The secret of the multi-hat challenge is to be aware of changing contexts and to adjust flexibly to them. For a leader in the middle, priorities may shift at a moment’s notice. While making sure not to neglect duties in any of his roles, he must ask: which “hat” deserves the majority of my time and energy? Oftentimes, the team’s objectives will help to determine the best approach to take.

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