Are the 7 Myths of Leading from the Middle Holding You Back? How to Overcome Them
Myths can become our reality - and vastly limit our potential. In business, the belief that only "leaders" lead prevents organizations from achieving the results they need to compete and thrive in the complex business world. As John C. Maxwell writes, anyone, at any level, can lead "by influencing people, making things happen, and helping advance the organization." To do so, though, you have to dispel prescriptive myths of leadership - and create a new reality.
360-Degree Leaders - and the Myths that Limit Them
Maxwell, a renowned leadership expert, developed the concept of the 360-Degree Leader. He writes: "360° Leadership means exercising influence in all directions, by using principles, skills, and insights that allow you not just to lead down, but also to lead up and lead across."
In Deloitte's Global Human Capital Trends 2014 survey "lack of leadership at all levels" was identified as the single most pressing talent issue facing companies today. According to the report: "Leadership needs today are far broader and deeper than merely developing the next CEO or even building the C-suite pipeline."
While developing leaders at all levels helps alleviate the "readiness gap" (ensuring a supply of ready and able leaders - yes, those with titles!), it also enables companies' to meet another key objective: to "inspire others to perform."
And this can be done by people, regardless of title or position - if you conquer the myths of leading from the middle.
The 7 Myths of Leading from the Middle: Do You Believe Them?
#1: The Position Myth
"You cannot lead if you're not at the top."
Effective leadership isn't a title. Maxwell writes, "The reality is that 99 percent of all leadership occurs not from the top but from the middle of an organization." You can lead - from wherever you are - by developing your influence.
Do people follow leaders simply because they have a title? Sure. Position is the lowest rung on the leadership ladder. People follow you because they must - but the result is high turnover and low morale.
The next rung is permission. People follow you because they want to. But how long will they want to?
The third step is production. Here, folks follow you because of the results you've generated for the organization. Now we're starting to get somewhere.
Climbing up, we have reproduction. If you've served your people well and have helped them succeed, they'll follow you.
Finally, we have respect. You've earned the respect of people because of "who you are and what you represent." Not all leaders climb to the top of the ladder - and not everyone who climbs to the top of the ladder has a title. True leadership is a choice.
#2: The Destination Myth
"When you get to the top, then you'll be able to lead."
That's a bit like saying, "When I get to be a brain surgeon, then I'll know how to operate," or "When I sit in a cockpit, then I'll be able to fly." The truth is you have to know - a lot - about leadership before you ever enter a position that requires it.
In The 360 Degree Leader: Developing Your Influence from Anywhere in the Organization, Maxwell relates the story of his writer, Charlie Wertz. At 205 pounds, Charlie was an unlikely distance runner, but he'd become determined to complete a marathon. Did he wait until he was at the starting line to figure out how to do it? No: "He started doing his homework a year in advance."
Charlie read articles, did research on the web, spoke with veteran marathon runners, trained, and even enlisted an expert to race with him. He started from where he was and steadily improved. He made a choice - just as 360-Degree Leaders make a choice. (And he completed the grueling 26.2 mile run!)
John Wooden, Hall of Fame Basketball coach, once said, "When opportunity comes, it's too late to prepare." If you want to lead, start now, start from wherever you are - and if you are at the top, encourage this mentality in your people.
#3: The Influence Myth
"If you're at the top, people will follow you."
A leadership position does not automatically confer the ability to be influential. Susan Williams writes in the Business Book Review: "Those who lack leadership experience often put the leadership role on a pedestal, overestimating its importance."
This is a belief that Maxwell emphasizes again and again: "True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed, assigned, or mandated. It comes only from influence." Not the influence of a title or of a corner office, but of the individual.
#4: The Inexperience Myth
"When you get to the top, you'll be ready to exert control."
Just as those in positions of leadership overestimate the importance of their titles, they may misjudge how much control they actually have over the organization. But as Maxwell points out: "The higher you go - and the larger the organization - the more you realize that many factors control the organization."
You can't control everything; what you can do is develop and leverage your influence so that you can control what is within your power.
#5: The Freedom Myth
"When you get to the top, you'll be free of limitations."
You're in charge; there's nothing holding you back. Except that, the higher you go, the more people expect - and demand! Maxwell uses the example of a successful salesperson: his schedule is flexible, and he can operate with freedom as long as he hits his targets. Then he's promoted to sales manager.
All of a sudden, he has to arrange his schedule around those of his people (who require freedom, just as he did); and the amount of revenue for which he's responsible has just multiplied exponentially. More pressure. Higher expectations. And he's promoted again to division manager, where he must work with not only his team but with a number of other departments and personalities. More demands. Less freedom.
The point is not "Never get promoted! It's awful!" But rather, discard this myth if you want to lead effectively. Leadership comes with responsibility and, yes, even restrictions. It's up to you to figure out how to work within them.
#6: The Potential Myth
"You can't reach your potential if you're not at the top."
"[P]eople should strive to be at the top of their game, not the top of the organization." CEO or President is a position relatively few ever hold - but that doesn't mean few ever reach their potential. Maxwell uses former Vice President Dick Cheney as an example of a 360-Degree Leader. He never made it to the "top spot," but he enjoyed a remarkably successful career.
A Capitol Hill aide once said of him, "You plug him in, and he works anywhere. He just has a real good way of fitting in and working with his environment." In other words, he influenced people - up, down, and across - in whatever position he held.
#7: The All-or-Nothing Myth
"If you can't get to the top, you shouldn't try to lead."
This myth is destructive - not only to individuals, who inevitably feel disillusioned, discouraged, and embittered, but to organizations, which then lack the leaders they need at all levels.
Leadership is not all-or-nothing. You can make an impact from wherever you are in an organization. And again, if you are the "top dog," it is incumbent upon you to dispel this myth and encourage your people to develop their leadership potential, no matter what their position.
If you destroy these myths and redefine "leadership," you can give your organization the edge it needs to thrive. Maxwell points out to become a 360-Degree Leader "is within reach of anyone who possess average or better than average leadership skills and is willing to work at it." So - are you?