Guest Post: Leading from the Middle

Jann FreedLeading Leave a Comment

Enjoy this guest blog post written by Gwyn Teatro.

If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito ~ Dalai Lama

Leading from the middle is not really a new idea. But I suspect there are many people working in the middle of their organizations who don’t recognize their real potential to lead or even consider it their place to do so.  Possibly, this is because we refer to them as ‘middle management’. This label makes us think more about managing and containing than leading. And while in every organization middle management is an essential element that can’t be ignored, neither should the potential for middle leadership be discounted. 

I’ve been thinking about that for quite some time and pondering too about the opportunity leading from the middle affords. It’s not just about personal growth and fulfillment. It’s also about making workplaces better for everyone and achieving optimal results in the process. I know that sounds idealistic. But I like to think that the ideal is something to strive for amid the daily trials served up by reality.  If we can hang our hats on something better, why would we not look to the ideal for a model of what that looks like?

Taking action to achieve an ideal is not for the faint of heart. The journey is littered with obstacles and means changing not only the way we look at things but also the way we behave.  And it means making a commitment to challenge the status quo, often in the face of opposition. On the other hand, having an ideal but doing nothing toward achieving it renders it a wisp of a dream that eventually disappears into the ether with only a sigh of regret to mark its passing.  

So what does it take to bring the ideal of leading from the middle effectively into reality? 

It starts with the way we define leadership.

For instance, one perspective is that leadership is only for a chosen few, people who have impressive titles and dwell in the rarified air of the C-Suite, or at least close enough to the top to see the sky.  If we choose to think about it this way, the choices we make from the middle (or feel we are allowed to make) are limited. It can feel restrictive, as the pecking order takes precedence over exercising our potential to make a positive difference in the way we go about accomplishing things.

What if we were to define leadership as something that is available to anyone who chooses it, regardless of title or position? What then?

It would open up a world of possibility for the middle leader, one that asks for some intestinal fortitude, yes, but also one that might just elevate the capacity of companies and the people who work in them to better serve their clients and their purpose.

So let’s pretend that leading from the middle is a generally accepted and recognized practice. What impact would that have? What might we have to consider with respect to the companies we work for? How would valuing middle leadership differently make for better fiscal results?

 I don’t have all the answers. What I do have is an abiding belief in the ability of average human beings to rise above the labels others place on them. I also think there is huge untapped potential in the middle of organizations for creativity and leadership, which largely goes unrecognized.

So no, the notion of leading from the middle is not new. However, just like the mosquito referred to by the Dalai Lama, its power is underestimated, not just by senior executives but also by middle leaders themselves. A shift in perspective about what leadership means could make a difference in how organizations are run and the results they achieve.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Gwyn Teatro is the author of In the Thick of It: Mastering the Art of Leading from the Middle.  She is a certified professional coach with a Master of Science degree in management. She spent the bulk of her career as an HR professional in the financial services industry where she coached senior business leaders and groups on leadership, organizational effectiveness and strategic business planning.

Thanks to Gwyn Teatro for sharing her wisdom with all of us.  I am grateful.