Leading from the Middle

This post co-authored with Raj Chawla.

Top-down command-and-control leadership is not enough to get results in today’s workplace. There are three reasons:
  1. Increasing levels of economic, political, and social complexity
  2. Equal access to information at all levels in organizations
  3. More sophisticated and empowered customers and stakeholders
Things move fast. Stakes are high. Agility, speed, and responsiveness make for success. New, more flexible, and relational models of leadership are emerging. Leading from the Middle is one of these. It demonstrates leadership from all points inside the organization: influencing up, down, and across the organizational flow chart.

Leading up provides guidance and direction to supervisors and superiors. Leading down directs and realizes a vision with subordinates. Leading across co-creates, integrates and coordinates effectively across boundaries.
Leading from the middle does all of these simultaneously. Leading from the middle results from a new way of looking at the world – where instead of a top, there is a web of interdependencies. New skills are required to get results in this world.

Three critical skill sets improve your ability to lead from the middle:
  1. Enrolling others effectively
  2. Generating peer accountability – moving away from mandate
  3. Surfacing and holding adaptive struggles so new solutions emerge
1. Enrolling others requires skill to generate the conversations that focus on shared success, new possibilities, and action. You enroll others by working together to identify a future everyone is committed to.

2. Generating peer accountability creates shared responsibility – moving away from telling people what to do and toward getting them involved. With strong peer accountability, success moves from individual focus (“I will achieve my goals come hell or high water”) to a team focus (“I am part of a larger effort and will do what I can to see that we meet our objectives”). Peer accountability shifts motivation from compliance and toward authentic accountability; i. e., from doing things “because the boss wants them done” to “because I have a commitment to my peers.”

3. Surfacing and holding adaptive struggles requires identifying and making visible the differences of values, habits, and beliefs that create tension, pulling them together to generate solutions. This includes the ability to reframe struggles so they are experienced as the divergent forces necessary to birth new solutions. This gives meaning to struggle: rather than being a conflict, it becomes the birthing ground for solutions.

One of the most effective ways to build these skills is to assemble a group of people from a cross-section of the organization that will embrace the issues at hand. This group systematically practices these skills, developing solutions that lead to greater positive outcomes. Then, success spreads throughout the system generating a step-change in all directions.
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Raj Chawla is a colleague and organizational consultant with 14 years experience working with leaders and multi-disciplinary groups to develop new ways of thinking and being to generate better futures. His clients include The World Bank Group, NASA, NeighborWorks of America, CHF International, Choice Hotels, US Agency for International Development, EDS, and SunTrust Bank. Contact Raj at rajcis@verizon.net
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