Friday, March 5, 2010

leading from the middle

I have run across several books entitled something like "leading from the bottom up," or "leading from the top down ," but little has been written about leading from the middle. Perhaps little has been written about this because either 1) no one leading from the middle has time to think about writing a book; of 2) leading from the middle can be so depressing that why would any one want to write about it, much less read about it.

My role as a Dean of the College of Business at Concordia University Texas defines "leading from the middle." On one side of me is the Provost, Vice-Presidents, and President. On the other side is faculty. Talk about being "stuck." If one of the hallmarks of leadership is initating change, consider the role of order to initiate change, one must begin with influencing those who follow that the change is good and should be embraced. This may or may not be an easy task, but one that can be accomplished over time (NEWS FLASH - we announced this week the beginning of an MBA program for next fall - so I guess we were able to enact change). Once the followers are convinced it is a good idea, then my job is to influence my boss and his colleagues that this is a good idea so that they can officially approve the idea (did I mention that we launched The Concordia MBA this week?). All of this takes time, and can be stopped at any place along the way. Frustrating? YES...Impossible? NO!

The nature of leadership from the middle means that those in "middle leadership" are always influencing two groups of people - that's the nature of the beast. So what does this mean? And how can those in "middle leadership" actually move their organization forward? Here are few ideas:
  1. Be a people person - in order to have influence with followers and supervisors, you need to have access to them. Be sure you know them and they know you - and trust you (more later on that). Spend time with both groups of people beyond the times when you need something. Take a genuine interest in them and know them as real people.
  2. Help both groups get what they want - the old saying that one can get everything out of life that they want if they help others get what they want is absolutely true - especially if you lead from the middle. You may find yourself acting as a translator most of the time - for me, I define my job as helping faculty understand what the administration wants, and helping the administration understand what the faculty wants. Acting as a go-between provides you access to both groups and makes the change process more smooth.
  3. Build trust - a boss of mine once defined integrity as "doing what one said they would do." That action will build trust, and will allow you as a "middle leader" to get things done more quickly. When I am asked for something by either group surrounding me, I do it to the best of my ability and deliver in time. When I can't do either one of those things, I let them know. If people trust you, they will listen to you and follow you and approve your requests more readily.
  4. Produce Excellence - leading from the middle may demand a greater need for excellence than in any other position. Think about it - everyone is watching you and they want results from you. Consider the fact that those in "middle leadership" have to get permission fromn two groups of people to enact any change - they're watching and they want proof that their decision to grant you permission was worthwhile. "Middle leaders" who produce excellent results will get a second and third chance next time they ask.
  5. Be a listener - yes, you know the change you want to enact...yes, you know how it should be done...yes, you could do it easier yourself...but the fact of the matter is, if you ask for help and for people's ideas and opinions, you have a beter chance of getting it done in the long run. Not only is this a courteous thing to do, you could actually learn something and produce a better product in the end. And in the process, you have built coalitions of people because they have had a say in the matter. Being collaborative and really learning to listen are critical skills for people in "middle leadership."

I think that is a long enough list for today - besides, I have to get some more work accomplished because in a few hours I am going to the Wizard Academy - not quite sure what I am getting myself into, but I am guaranteed to have a good time and learn something...I may even learn something about leading form the middle!


Aaron (@aaronsu) said...

Congrats on the launching of the MBA program!

Anonymous said...

Can't wait to hear about your experience at the Wizard Academy!

3D EMP said...

Great insights. With your permission, I'll point my students to this blog posting.

Don Christian said...

To 3D EMP: you have my permission..that's why I write this thing every Friday - share away!