A space where you’ve got to be as adept at giving direction as you are at taking it.”

Unless you’re born into a monarchy leadership role, chances are you’ve been thrown into situations where you find yourself leading from the middle.

Or from the back of the pack for that matter.

It’s leadership without formal authority.

Middle leadership definitely has its pitfalls.

This I learned the hard way at one of my very first jobs. I was a summer student working on a concrete forming crew with a boss that was strong-headed and wrong-headed.

I offered a few well-meaning suggestions in a situation that called for a different approach. Well it got me fired on the spot!

 

“The first and most important choice a leader makes is the choice to serve, without which one’s capacity to lead is severely limited.” – Robert Greenleaf.

 

Middle leadership seems to be a rite of passage that every good leader needs to master at some point in a leadership career.

Call it an apprenticeship of sorts.

The Pitfalls of Middle Leadership

Here are a few middle leadership scenarios I’ve encountered with clients.

  • Facing tension due to the ambiguity of their authority and struggling to balance power and authority effectively, worrying about imposter syndrome.
  • Managing time inefficiently -prioritizing their own time over their team’s time, creating a perception of superiority and distance.
  • Mistakenly empowering a subordinate who isn’t ready can create power and bias perceptions, which can demotivate the team and lead to conflicts.
  • Drifting into resentment or cynicism believing that they could “do something better”.

Authentic leadership in the middle is a practice of dual servitude and guidance.

I’ve found the mantra “ Serve up – Coach down” to be a practical approach for middle leaders.

You serve up, providing support to those above you, and you coach down, offering wisdom and encouragement to your team.

It’s about understanding that leadership is not a one-way directive but a multi-directional exchange of service and growth.

 It’s about being a conduit for communication, vision and direction, ensuring that objectives and values cascade down while feedback and insights travel up.

The same principle applies when working with peers.  Coaching sideways is equally important, promoting a culture of shared learning and collective responsibility.

We live in a culture where leadership gets celebrated, discussed, and taught. Being less than a leader may be perceived as something less than.

In reality, there are many more followers than leaders in our organizations. What if we invested as much in learning to follow well as we do in leading well?

What if the reason that many who aspire to lead fail is because they never learned to follow?

For those who want to lead while not in charge, the mindset of following well is a critical factor for success.

Mastering The Middle

Being personable goes a long way in building rapport and connection with team members. Nobody likes a cranky co-worker .

It’s about sharing stories, showing vulnerability, and creating a space where colleagues feel seen and heard.

This personal touch can help turn a group of individuals into a cohesive team.

Focus on actions rather than arguments. “Let’s team up on the problem, not each other!” is a good line when things get heated.

If you lead by example and not just by word, you can inspire change.

You become known as a doer, someone who takes initiative and demonstrate what is possible through action.

Listening to understand is an art that many strive for but few master. I’m still working on this one.

It’s about truly hearing what others are saying. Gaining understanding can guide collective efforts towards a shared goal.

It can be tangible proof of your commitment to your team’s success.

Celebrating the efforts of co-workers isn’t just about acknowledging their contributions.

It’s about recognizing their value to the team and the mission.

It reinforces the idea that everyone plays a crucial role and that leadership is not about standing above others, but standing with them.

Assertiveness is a key trait in this environment. But not in a brash way!

It’s about confidently presenting your ideas and standing firm on your convictions.

There’s a fine line between assertiveness and aggression.

The assertive leader knows this distinction and walks it carefully, especially when dealing with unfamiliar territories or audiences.

Flexibility is also important. While this may seem like it conflicts with the need to be assertive, being too strident or adamant in your beliefs will work against you.

You may need to “flex your style” to be a bit more accommodating.

You don’t want to come across as a stubborn, immovable monolith, incapable of believing in anyone other than yourself.

Humility is the silent partner of confidence.

It’s the acknowledgment that while your ideas have value, they can be enhanced by the perspectives of others.

This blend of confidence and humility wins support of others and fosters an environment where collaboration thrives.

Build trust by being relentlessly consistent and reliable with everyone. (direct reports, peers and superiors)

Servant leadership is all about making the goals clear and then rolling your sleeves up and doing whatever it takes to help people win. In that situation, they don’t work for you; you work for them.” Ken Blanchard 

Seeds of Opportunity 

Many of us have seasons of work where we might feel undervalued.

Working beneath our capacity.

Yes, you may get frustrated when your voice isn’t heard or get impatient when things take too long.

Have you ever considered that current circumstances are teaching and preparing you for things to come?

The seeds of opportunity always lie in the present, so use the present wisely in order to prepare for more.

In Conclusion 

Leading when not in charge is about being trustworthy, reliable, assertive yet humble, flexible, personable, action-oriented, a good listener, and a team player.

These qualities ensure that your leadership by example is felt and followed.

It’s about serving upward, coaching downward, and collaborating sideways.

It comes with the understanding that everyone, at every level, is both a leader and a learner.

Until next time.

 My “getting fired” story is here.

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