Leading from the Middle of the Pack

Leadership is a choice you make rather than a place you sit. In other words, leadership comes from influence and not from your position. For this reason, even when you’re not in front, you’re still leading those around you. In fact, you are even influencing those ahead of you. In this lesson, I’d like to look at four models of how followers influence those above them in the chain of command.

Four Models of Leading from the Middle of the Pack

1) The Backseat Driver

Have you ever had the misfortune of transporting a backseat driver in your car? Talk about annoying! Backseat drivers specialize in providing unwanted input. They ceaselessly provide directions, acting like a human GPS—only without a “mute” button. They gladly point out shortcuts that the driver missed or parking spots that she failed to notice. 

The problem with backseat drivers isn’t that they provide misinformation, but that they do not have driver’s permission to give guidance. Unsolicited advice is almost always received as criticism. As such, backseat drivers anger and annoy the very person they’re trying to assist. They end up being more distracting than helpful.

2) Dead Weight

Railroad transportations companies want to load each and every train car with cargo in order to make money. An empty railroad car not only fails to add to profits; it is costly to move and maintain. The locomotive must work harder, expending extra fuel, to haul unfilled train cars. Accordingly, freight trains would be better off without having to transport unused cars.

Teammates are dead weight when the energy that they exact from a leader outweighs their contribution to the team. Such persons increase a leader’s workload rather than lightening it. Consequently, the influence of dead weight isn’t neutral; it’s negative.

3) Brownnoser

Initially, flattery may boost a leader’s ego, but brownnosers actually have the negative effect of preventing a leader from correcting poor decisions and from growing in self-awareness. In addition, brownnosers eventually expect preferential treatment in exchange for their compliance. In this respect, they’re like parasites, sucking the lifeblood out of leaders without providing anything of real value in return.

4) Wingman

Positioned behind and to the side of the lead airplane, the wingman serves as a visual lookout for the lead aircraft. The wingman is also on-call to play a supporting role in aerial combat. Importantly, the wingman answers to the commands of the lead pilot. He must be disciplined in his support, coordinating his maneuvers with those of the leader. Even though they aren’t in charge, wingmen have tremendous influence on the outcome of an aerial engagement and, as such, their leaders hold them in the highest esteem.

What can you do to become a better wingman?

  1. Invest in relational chemistry. Get to know what makes your leaders tick, their style of decision-making, their values, etc. You want to earn their trust and to be able to anticipate their actions.

  2. Be prepared every time you take your leader’s time. Making the most of your leader’s time not only communicates respect but also showcases your commitment to the team.

  3. Know when to push and when to back off. Given your unique vantage point in the organization, you inevitably will have some knowledge your leader lacks. The key is to know when giving your input will aid your leader in reaching a decision and when it will merely complicate matters.

  4. Be better tomorrow than you are today. Nothing impresses a leader like a self-motivated performer. As you demonstrate growing capacity for responsibility, more will be given to you.

Wrap-Up

Remember: In the long run, you cannot succeed if your leader fails. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, you have influence with your boss. Learning to cultivate that influence can spell the difference between career advancement and professional stagnation.

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