Leading from the Middle

by | Oct 12, 2017

This perhaps seems a strange choice of title for a company called ‘On Point Coaching’ but it came from thinking about who really are ‘The Leaders’ in a business.

Traditionally seen as being at the ‘top’ – giving directions, rallying the troops but in modern business is that really what leadership is like?  Many organisations now have a flatter structure with the ‘middle manager’ being a thing of the past but with senior staff increasingly being asked to ‘step up’ and take additional responsibilities.  In my experience promotion into a role with direct reports very rarely comes with training in the tricky art managing people and when coaching this frequently results in the ‘a-ha’ moments as we consider what is being said and done from a different perspective.

Leaders who ‘learnt on the job’ are greatly influenced in style by their early managers and even if they don’t like it find themselves unconsciously adopting the same techniques. Think of it a bit like parenting (which also mostly comes with no training), as our kids become teenagers we find to our horror that we sound increasingly like our parents!

Leadership has many different layers and facets and I am an avid reader of academic work in this area.  It is however perhaps one of the simplest pieces that resonates loudest with me; in 1972 Dr Robert McNeish wrote ‘Lessons from the Geese’ as a sermon for his church – he was intrigued by watching how geese co-operated to achieve so much more than they could alone.  His work has been quoted many times as we strive to find the magic ingredients that make teams more than just the sum of their parts.  I recommend you to read the full piece but three points in particular seem very pertinent to thinking about ‘leading from the middle’.

When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies on the point’

In business teams how many leaders feel confident to step back and let others take the lead when they are more able to do so?  How many leaders burn out from the stress of responsibility because they don’t really empower others?  It a simple lesson – take turns doing the hard stuff – don’t always try to be the one flying into the wind.

‘Geese in the formation honk from behind to encourage those up front to keep up their speed’en the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies on the point’

At first this can feel rather counter-intuitive.  Much is written about the value of leaders giving praise and feedback to encourage their team but I have seen very little about the value of the team praising their leader.  We recognise that its ‘tough at the top’; pressure, expectation, fear of failure can weigh heavily – anxiety about the future can paralyse a leader and prevent them making bold decisions in the present.  If the chatter from the brew room is less than supportive it must surely undermine a leader’s confidence, impacting their courage to take key decisions which in turn affects the whole team and drives more negativity.  In my opinion, everyone needs praise, recognition and encouragement given in an open and honest way irrespective of where they are in an organisation.  Dynamic organisations need individuals to step forward, to have the confidence to lead on a particular project – surely they are much more likely to want to do this if they can see that a leadership role comes with support and encouragement.

When the lead goose tires, it rotates back into the formation and another goose flies on the point’

The lead goose seems to understand this and isn’t threatened by it – keeping the geese on their current track but open to the possibilities of better ideas coming from the others.  In the world of business, leaders often attempt to ‘control’ or micro manage everyone below them – resistant to anyone expressing a different view.  Instead of supporting innovative thinking it becomes a ‘my way or the high way’ mentality.  Allowing others to take the lead into a different direction takes confidence but has great potential to springboard growth and development particularly in fast changing markets.

The terms ‘manager’ and ‘leader’ tend to be used interchangeably; for me ‘leadership’ is about inspiring and influencing yourself and others; ‘managing’ is more task focused it’s about organising and controlling to ensure work happens in a timely way.  In reality many people find themselves being both – accountable for ‘tasks’ but with direct reports looking to them for guidance and support.  Leadership is perhaps the most difficult skill new managers have to learn so don’t promote and then burn out your most valuable assets – instead invest in the support and training that builds the confidence to ‘lead from the middle’ and you will reap great rewards in engagement, focus and delivery.

I love to work with new managers and on talent programmes, developing effective leadership styles and helping them understand the power of emotional intelligence is such a rewarding area of my work.  Coaching for me shouldn’t be just for executives – identify the people your business relies on – the ones that keep you awake at night worrying how you’d manage without them, and then invest in their development.  Great leaders always create new leaders and I love this quote from Ralph Nader ‘I start with the premise that the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers’.   If you want to develop your leaders now and for the future I would love to talk to you.





Helen Burgess

Helen Burgess

On Point Coaching - Specialist in Leadership and Team Development

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