Much has been written about leading from the middle. People in these positions truly feel “caught in the middle” by pressures from subordinates, peers, and managers or leaders above. These pressures may produce conflicting objectives (which is usually an organizational alignment problem) and very often conflict about how to get things done. Conflict about how to get things done is critical because, while we may agree on where we are going, we have to live with one another during the journey to get there.
This topic of leading from the middle has re-captured my attention because I have recently heard from a few people struggling with this very issue. The most common comment, or rather plea for help, is “How can I get my boss to see things …” followed by a description of how they see things. Initially, the approach they are taking is trying to get others to see the “truth” they so humbly possess.
I understand the plea. I understand the approach. I’ve been there, too. However, I suggest that leading from the middle must start with understanding how others see things, including not only leaders and managers, but peers, and subordinates. For now, though, I’m going to focus on those above you in the hierarchy.
To understand how others see things, one of the most helpful approaches is to discern whether they are looking at their work through the lens of a manager or of a leader. This “lens” provides insight into what they value. The distinction of managing and leading is not new to my readers. A refresher on that distinction will facilitate our discussion, though.
John Kotter, change leadership guru, said in Leading Change,1 that:
“Management is a set of processes that can keep a complicated system of people and technology running smoothly; [these processes include] planning, budgeting, organizing, staffing, controlling, and problem solving…. Leadership defines what the future should look like, aligns people with that vision, and inspires them to make it happen despite obstacles.”
In short, Kotter said that managers focus on making today the best possible today there can be while leaders focus our attention on the best possible tomorrow and preparing us to make that a reality. Managers value the present and making it work. Leaders value the future and helping people get there. Are these contradictory? No. Are they complementary? Yes.
My fellow blogger, Greg, wrote in “Management-Leadership: Not an Either-Or Proposition” that the issue is often framed as “leadership versus management.” But he promoted the idea that they work together as “complementary functions in any organization.”
So the challenge of leading from the middle is often connected to discerning whether the person you report to is operating from manager or the leader values. Don’t get into the trap of figuring out which one is better; both are important in all organizations. However, there is value in discerning which one is needed depending on the situation and that person’s responsibilities. On that score, another trap is thinking that managing and leading is an either/or proposition— that any given person either manages or leads. That’s also a fallacy. All managers should be able to provide some leadership. All leaders should be able to do some managing.
Above, I said it is important to discern whether the situation calls for managing or leading. What if your boss is providing the wrong balance of managing/leading? What if your boss is “wired” for one and the situation calls for the other? Interestingly, I rarely see the scenario in which too much leadership and not enough management is being provided. The problem is almost always flipped—too much managing and not enough leading. So in the next article, I’m going to deal with that.
In the meantime, I would love to hear your input on this topic. What do you do when you are getting more managing than you need, and not enough leadership? Post a reply here or drop me a note.
Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at]LeadStrategic.com with your questions.
1: John Kotter, Leading Change (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1996), 25.