Challenges of Leading from the Middle of the Organization
May 26, 2019
Critical Insight Group

As top leaders we often expect the people on our leadership team to see the world the same way we do. But that is rarely, if ever, an accurate assumption (or maybe better stated ‘hope’). Leaders in the middle of an organization – those not the top leader, or the front line employees – have a unique situation. To lead them most effectively, we need to view the organization from their perspective.

This article will present just three of the (many) unique challenges these leaders face.


The Tension Challenge:

They are caught in the middle.

They can make some decisions, but not too many and not certain ones.

They can manage some resources, but not too many and not certain ones.

And they can spend some money, but not too much and not at certain times.

They are constantly guessing where they stand, and this uncertainty can be stressful and frustrating. As my business partner John Maxwell says, “When you’re not the top leader, you are not running the show, you’re just responsible for its success.” And that can be difficult.


The Multi-hat Challenge:

Anything and everything can come at them…all at any time.

Challenges can come at those in the middle from 360 degrees (and in 3-D). And they come from anyone. They can come from above, below, across…from the inside or outside the organization.

Challenges can come at any time, and often all at once. One challenge will often cause others.

These challenges often come with completely unrealistic expectations. Like the hotel customer that demands that the front desk clerk help them figure out the name and location of the hotel where they do have a reservation.

And finally, they can require knowledge and skills to resolve them that the leader in the middle doesn’t have.


The Vision Challenge:

Championing a vision is difficult when it isn’t yours (or it’s one you don’t believe in).

Which would you rather do? Work to put your own vision into action, or help others fulfill theirs? Most of us would say ours. (If you disagree, think about the last time you went to lunch with friends and tried to pick the restaurant.)

The less we are involved in the creation of the vision the less willing we are to invest our energy (and reputation) in its fulfillment.

We’re putting our reputation on the line for someone else’s vision! The leadership Law of Buy-in says that a team buys into the leader, first, then the vision. So when we’re in the middle of an organization promoting someone else’s vision we’re risking our reputation, our trust with our team, in someone else’s vision. The quality and accuracy of the vision will ultimately impact the relationship we have with our team.

Leaders don’t like change any more than anyone else – unless it’s their idea. So the leaders in the middle of the organization are just as challenged as everyone to ‘get onboard’ with the vision. They just usually have far less time. Those at the top of the organization might have been working on it for weeks, months or sometimes even years. Yet, those in the middle are usually given a very small time window to accept and communicate the vision within their teams.

These are just three of the unique challenges of the ‘leaders in the middle’. So as top leaders in an organization it’s worthwhile for us to put ourselves in the position of the leaders in the middle of our organizations, and think about the world from their perspective. This will allow us to better prepare and support those leaders who ultimately ‘architect and orchestrate’ the execution of the vision.

Question: Does this list get you thinking? What other challenges do they face that those at the top don’t?

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