The challenges posed by leading from the middle were framed well by John Maxwell who wrote, “One of the toughest things about being a leader in the middle of an organization is that you can’t be sure of where you stand. As a leader, you have some power and authority. You can make some decisions. You have access to some resources. At the same time, you lack power in other areas and if you overstep your authority, you can get yourself into real trouble. Unless you are the owner or CEO, your power is on loan from someone with higher authority. And that person has the power to take that authority away from you by firing you, demoting you or moving you into another area of the business. If that doesn’t create tension, nothing will.”
When you learn to lead well from the middle you’re not as likely to stay in the middle; whereas leading poorly from a middle management position makes promotion less likely, and eventual obscurity more certain. Following are nine sample ways to lead from the middle of the pack in your organization: the sales manager serving his or her GSM well, and the GSM doing likewise to the GM, the GM to the dealer, and the like.
1. If they have not already been established, ask your boss to clearly define performance expectations and parameters for making decisions. You’ve got to be on the same page as your boss concerning what’s most important, by when, and your permissible boundaries to make it happen. Don’t guess or wrongly assume. Without clarity you can’t aggressively execute what you’re responsible for getting done.
2. Take initiative. A key characteristic of effective leadership is a bias for action that translates to an ability to make things happen. Bring ideas to your boss, as well as solutions rather than just problems. If you see what needs to be done do it! It is better to be told to wait than to wait to be told. Once you understand what’s expected as outlined in the first point, take the initiative to figure out how it can be done; then execute.
3. Execute your work with impeachable integrity. Don’t be another has-been in the business lore of high achievers who self-destructed because they got results the wrong way. The end doesn’t justify the means if you cut corners, violate values, or abuse others to get the job done. Effective leadership isn’t just about getting results but getting them the right way.
4. Stop trying to fix your boss. You can’t fix your boss any more than you can fix your spouse or any other human being. Besides, your job isn’t to fix your leader; it’s to add value to that leader. Supplement their weaknesses and adjust your attitude towards the leader in areas that cause friction for you.
5. Develop a solid relationship with your leader. You don’t have to be good friends, or even hang out, but there had better be some common ground of trust, respect, and mutual understanding within a relationship or you’ll be miserable most of the time— and eventually starting over again elsewhere. The first reaction to working for an ineffective leader, or one with whom you don’t get along is often to withdraw from him or her and build relational barriers. You’ve got to work to counterintuitively fight that urge. If you make your leader your adversary, you will create a no-win situation. Instead, find common ground and do your part to go the second mile to build a solid professional relationship.
6. Publicly support your boss. Some managers foolishly do just the opposite: they publicly gossip and complain about, disrespect, or seek ways to undermine their boss. Discuss disagreements privately with your boss, and don’t talk to other people about your boss. He or she will find out, and you’ll also reveal character flaws to all listening to your rants that diminish you in their eyes. Others will also realize you may be doing the same to them or would someday if the opportunity arose. Andy Stanley said it well, “Loyalty publicly results in leverage privately.”
7. Manage yourself. You will not impress your leader for long with your ability to manage others if you cannot first manage yourself. This includes managing your attitude, emotions, time, daily routine, discipline, character choices and self-accountability.
8. Accept responsibility for your results when they fall short. Just own it—your results, attitude, decisions, all of it. In fact, if you want to earn even more respect and influence, take responsibility for more than your share. That sort of confidence and humility will draw others to you. When things go wrong, put away your black belt in blame and search for solutions not scapegoats. Be coachable, make adjustments, learn from shortfalls and mistakes, and grow both personally and professionally.
9. Lighten your leader’s load. Perhaps the best way to accomplish this is by doing your own work with such excellence and integrity that you’re the one your boss never has to worry about getting it done, or holding accountable, or micromanaging. Then go further by looking for tasks you can take off your leader; especially those areas where you’re strong but he or she isn’t. Be the “go-to” person every leader craves, values, and takes a special interest in.
Following these steps for leading from the middle creates a triple-win: you win because you’re more effective, fulfilled, and successful; your boss wins because with people like you around, he or she can grow to entirely new levels; and the organization wins as well, as both teammates and customers reap the rewards of effective leadership at the helm of any department. While no one in business should ever truly be considered as “indispensable,” you can come pretty darned close in your own boss’ eyes by living these nine mandates every single day.