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"In many areas of life, the middle is the most miserable place to be...What's the worst seat on an airplane? The middle. What's the most difficult stage at school? Arguably it's middle school. Even being born in the middle seems undesirable!" John C. Maxwell

With such a rousing endorsement, who would want to lead from the middle! While organizations increasingly, and desperately, need leaders at all levels, it doesn't negate the difficulties that you face. "It's like banging my head against a brick wall." "No matter how hard I try, I never seem to get anywhere." By confronting the common challenges of 360-Degree Leaders, you can work to overcome them - and start getting somewhere.

Sound Familiar?

Maxwell writes, "Everyone who attempts to lead from the middle of an organization faces common challenges. You are not alone." (Much more comforting than "the middle is the most miserable place to be!).

  1. The Tension Challenge

    You're caught in the middle, and this inevitably creates tension. This pressure is affected by:

    • Empowerment. How much authority and responsibility has your boss actually given you?
    • Initiative? How can you be proactive and take initiative without overstepping boundaries?
    • Environment. How does the "DNA" of the organization and leader affect you? What type of environment does it create for you?
    • Job parameters. How well do you know your job and how to do it? (The less familiar, the more tension.)
    • Appreciation. Do you need credit for your work, or are you willing to forgo it? If you need that recognition, you're going to become increasingly frustrated.

    As Maxwell writes, "Nothing frees a person from tension like clear lines of responsibility." Ensure you have an accurate understanding of expectations and initiate ongoing discussions with your leader. When you know what you "own," you can become more comfortable with being in the middle.

  2. The Frustration Challenge

    What do you do when you have to follow ineffective leaders? What if they are incompetent? What if they micromanage or sap team morale? What if they seek all the credit and recognition for themselves?

    Don't try to fix them. It's not your job - and moreover, you won't be able to! As Maxwell emphasizes, "[Y]our task is to find ways to add value to them." Can you identify strengths and leverage them? Can you use your strengths to compensate for your leaders' weaknesses (without rubbing their faces in it, as it were)?

  3. The Multi-Hat Challenge

    When you're leading from the middle, you experience pressure from all directions. Maxwell writes that middle leaders have to be "versatile enough to handle demands from those above them, partner with those beside them, and give direction to those below them."

    They also face a number of difficult questions: How do I champion the vision when I don't set it? When do I exert my authority, and when do I step back? How do I ensure deadlines are met when I'm not directly involved in the work?

    Which hat do I wear, and when?

    "The secret of the multi-hat challenge is to be aware of changing contexts and to adjust flexibly to them." This requires the ability to prioritize - and juggle at times.

  4. The Ego Challenge

    This could also be called the "Invisibility Challenge." You are "often hidden in the middle." which can be a great source of frustration, not to mention a heavy blow to your ego.

    Overcome this challenge by appreciating the value of your position - even if it seems like no one else does. (Which is probably not the case; consistently good leadership is noticed...eventually!)

    Do what needs to be done; focus on your duties; and enjoy the satisfaction of project successfully completed or a compliment from someone else in the middle. Maxwell writes, "Good leaders get results - and they get noticed."

  5. The Fulfillment Challenge

    How's the view from the middle of the pack? "When you're the lead dog, the view always changes. If you're not the lead dog, your view always stays the same, and that view isn't exactly what one would call 'scenic.'"

    Leaders like to be out in front: the view's better, for one! But they're also recognized for their position; they get to determine the direction and the pace.

    So how do you find fulfillment in the middle? Maxwell suggests taking the time to develop strong relationships with key people, maintaining continual communication, and defining your "wins" in terms of teamwork. The lead dog would stand little chance if he didn't have a team behind him, after all.

    Real leadership is "helping others to win. It's much more important than where you are in the organizational chart."

  6. The Vision Challenge

    You have to champion a vision that you didn't create. Maxwell calls middle leaders "informational conduits that connect the top and the bottom of the organization." When these conduits are clogged, "the vision cannot flow from the leaders at the top to the people who actually accomplish the work. If the vision fails to connect to the workers, it will never come to fruition."

    Invest in the vision; it will become your own. The best way to meet this challenge is to go one step above supporting the vision. Add value to it. How can you clarify it? Personalize it? And how can you communicate it more effectively to the people around you and create buy-in?

  7. The Influence Challenge

    It's not easy leading from the middle. For one thing, you don't have a position, a title, on which to fall back. But more importantly, you may not have the influence you need to encourage people to follow you. Yet.

    Change your thinking. Instead of "I want a position that will make people follow me," develop a mindset that says, "I want to become a person whom people will want to follow."

    People don't follow CEOs or presidents merely because of their titles, at least not in the long-term. They follow:

    • Leaders who care.
    • Leaders with character.
    • Leaders who are competent.
    • Leaders who are consistent.
    • Leaders with commitment.

    None of this is predicated upon a title. Leaders don't automatically get this respect when they reach the top, along with a pay raise and a new office. They earn it by developing their influence.

There is no doubt that leading from the middle is challenging. For many, it is simply too challenging. They let the feeling of "never getting anywhere," prevent them from moving themselves, others, and the organization forward. But those who understand the influence and position are not synonymous can excel in their roles - and find that, perhaps, the middle isn't the most miserable place to be!


Larry Hart

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