Leading from the Middle

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Matt Escher
  • 509th Medical Support Squadron
"Those guys up at headquarters just don't understand how it is here and are always mucking things up for us," "The commander just doesn't understand how things are in my section," "My supervisor doesn't know what I go through every day," "Someday I will be in charge, and then I'll make everything be as it should."

These are just a few of the thoughts that sometimes flow through all of our heads at times when we are frustrated with day-to-day challenges. If everyone has thoughts like these, why is it that some people seem to retain a more positive attitude? Why do some people seem to come out of every adverse situation with more tools in their belt for dealing with the next problem around the corner?

There are many possible answers to these questions. One answer is to make a conscious effort to understand how to become a leader from within the middle of an organization. This is a skill that most of us can continue to draw upon throughout our lives. All of us are at the middle level of some organization. It could be the middle of a wing or group, the middle of a flight or element, the middle level at a headquarters office or even the middle level of a church or civic organization.

So what does it mean to lead from the middle? This is a concept developed very effectively by John C. Maxwell in his book, The 360ยบ Leader. While I cannot cover the entire concept here, I will describe a few key principles helpful to anyone in the middle of an organization who has a desire to influence its direction.

Maxwell describes the middle as the optimal place from which to exercise influence. Influence is the key ingredient to leadership. President Eisenhower once said, "Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it." The most effective leaders are those who are adept at influencing the actions of others above, beside and below themselves in an organization.

The basic concept of leading from the middle involves being able to lead up to your boss, across to your peers and down to those for whom you are directly responsible. How does one maximize influence in all directions at once?

Leading up is often the hardest. How do you influence your boss? The brief answer is by providing value. Understanding what the boss values is the first step, but adding value beyond that is the key to influence.

To add value at an organizational level, one must work to "lift the leader's load." In simple terms, that means doing your own job well and presenting solutions instead of problems. It means going the extra mile and doing what others won't do, even when "it's not my job."

Be willing to put yourself on the line and push the boundaries of what's been done before. The more one seizes the initiative and contributes to carrying the bigger load, the greater the likelihood of influencing the organization as a whole.

To paraphrase a quote from the motivational speaker Zig Ziglar, "You are more likely to get what you want done if you help others to get what they need done." He is also famous for saying, "There are no traffic jams on the extra mile."

Leading peers in your organization is all about developing mutually beneficial relationships. To lead across an organization, or to lead other leaders at an equal level, you must understand how to help them become successful. In contrast to how people often behave, one can often do better for himself or herself by not competing directly as if everything were a zero sum game. One can achieve much more by sharing ideas and by actively seeking win-win situations to the benefit of the larger organization.

Bring ideas and resources to the table that provide benefit beyond your immediate domain. The person who benefits the larger organization most consistently by helping others succeed is more likely to achieve personal success as well.

Leading downward is most often viewed as a simple concept. If I am in charge of something, others must follow. Of course, anyone who has ever led an organization knows there's much more to it than that. To influence those who work for you, it is essential to learn how to add value to each person.

When a leader can help his team members develop their own potential--to learn how to make positive contributions and to be recognized for doing so--that builds a leader's influence. A leader must recognize the strengths of each team member and place them in positions where they will grow and succeed. And when a leader adequately communicates the vision, he or she must trust the team to achieve results.

No team can perform its best when someone is looking over their shoulder or second guessing every move. Give your people some room, and they may surprise you. Admiral James Stockdale once said, "Strange as it sounds, great leaders gain authority by giving it away."

Putting these ideas into practice does not require one to be in a position of authority. Anyone at any level can apply the concepts of leading from the middle. For example, there is a very sharp young Airman in my squadron who continuously seeks opportunities to improve the section and participate in wing events. That person does a great job setting a positive example and demonstrates the impact even the newest members can have on a squadron.

In other areas of the wing, it is likely that recent deployments have created numerous opportunities for those who stayed back to step up and beyond what would normally be considered their usual jobs. I hope those individuals will continue to develop and enhance their influence throughout the wing even as their supervisors and colleagues return.

Finally, those who are at the top of any organization have a special responsibility to unleash leaders at lower levels. Maxwell goes to some depth in his book to explain how to create an environment where leaders multiply at every level. It's not something that happens easily without conscious effort. But it's an effort that is sure to yield a level of organizational excellence exponential to that put in.