Leading from the middle is about influencing rather than directing those around you and requires the leader to lead by example. It is the creation of an environment in which innovation, as well as people, flourish. It challenges traditional notions of what it means to be a leader. It requires the leader to become an expert at getting buy-in for ideas without being coercive. In his book Work With Me Simon Dowling¹ offers some wonderful advice to leaders on the gentle art of creating buy-in.
“Buy-in requires patience, empathy and careful thinking. You need to know when to yield control in order to maintain it. You need a healthy dose of emotional intelligence. You need to be willing to go slow to go fast.”
That is not to say that hierarchical organisations such as large corporations or government agencies are doomed to be trapped in an outdated command and control structure. It is entirely possible for the two structures to coexist. They are not mutually exclusive. However for that to happen it does require a paradigm shift in the thinking of the leaders of the organisation. They need to be prepared to relinquish ‘control’ and share the leadership responsibilities with team members. It also means being prepared to be a follower as well as a leader. This works well when there:
- Are open pathways of communication;
- Is a two-way, open exchange of knowledge, wisdom and ideas; and
- When there is trust among team members and the leader.
In the book Designing the Networked Organisation², Ken Everett refers to this process of open communication as ‘hosting’ – where the leader consciously builds community by initiating and hosting conversations rather than decreeing what is to be. Think of it as the difference between the Sherpa who gently guides the team on the journey, keeping them safe in dangerous territory versus the general who leads the charge into battle. It is where the leader operates at the ‘edge of chaos’ – “neither out of control nor completely in control. The edge of chaos is where learning and innovation can happen.”
Facilitating high quality conversations is fundamental to leading from the middle. Great conversation starters are ….. “Let’s talk about your work. What part of your work gives you energy? What part takes it away? What can we do about it?”
There are many benefits from this approach including a better flow of information through the workplace. Hosting high quality conversations facilitates open communication and proactive information sharing. This leads to better outcomes for stakeholders, better use of resources and better relationships. Good communication builds a robust organisation because people will make better decisions, network effectively and solve problems early before issues become critical.
While it is true that some people horde information under the mistaken belief that the person with the information is the person with the power, generally speaking today there is a recognition that in our complex workplaces, information sharing and open communication facilitate higher productivity. In fact it is the person who shares the most information who is often the person with the most influence.
Leading from the middle empowers others, transcends hierarchy and unleashes potential.
- Dowling, S. (2016). Work With Me: How to get people to buy into your ideas. Melbourne, Australia: Wiley.
- Everett, K. (2011). Designing the Networked Organisation. NY. Business Expert Press, LLC.