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The Art of Leading from the Middle: A Middle Manager's Quick Guide

Updated on October 13, 2014
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I'm a dad, husband, and Christian first. The rest are just life's add-ons: an educator, administrator, learner, & development professional.

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Many successful companies have great leaders. Moreover, they are pivotal in the changes towards growth and improvement. But one misconception of leadership many have is that leaders are always at the top. John Maxwell, one of the foremost authorities on the topic equates leadership with influence. Surely, there’s no mention of being the company’s CEO or president or any executive position as a requirement for leadership. Of course, these people at the top need to lead, but leadership can come from all levels of the organization. Obviously, this great misconception can slow the development of any organization.

In addition, middle managers are instrumental in getting the corporate directives down the line. Likewise, they take principles, ideas and concepts that are often abstract and turn them into concrete, measurable and manageable outputs. For example, look at your company’s mission and vision. Succinctly, middle managers are the ones that transform these philosophies into actual actions.

"The first rule of Leadership: everything is your fault" – A Bug’s Life

A Reality Check

This position is wrought with numerous challenges. Middle managers get caught between the instructions from above and the employees. For example, streamline the corporate structure – a.k.a. get rid of some employees; redistribute corporate budget – a.k.a. cut off funding for certain programs or departments. It’s a nasty job. But that’s why you’re there. Not to have a fall guy for the task, but a competent person to bridge the gap.

Likewise, when things go south it’s your fault. But when your efforts produce great results, it’s credited to the executive’s uncanny decision making and leadership skills. Yes, it can be unfair. But, there are companies that give credit where it is due. Does your company do this?

The art of leading from the middle is a task which all middle managers must master. Here are some important tips so that you can influence people in your team and people above you.

Share your honest opinion – when asked

It is easy to blurt out agreeable statements just to please the boss. But this neither helps that organization nor establishes your credibility as a leader. Rather, you simply dig a hole that gets deeper and deeper. Worse, you’re digging it for your self and other employees.

Thus, it is imperative to share your HONEST opinion whenever asked. Of course, there is a good way and a bad way of doing this. Blurting out “this sucks” can get you into trouble. On the other hand, highlighting the pros and the cons and throwing in your suggestions can be seen as more productive. There is an art to giving feedbacks to bosses. It is paramount that every middle manager acquires this skill.

What is your strength as a leader?

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Prove your worth as a leader

To be seen as a competent leader, you need to show that you can actually lead. However, this is more than just shouting orders at people and doing nothing afterwards. Instead, take an active role in the changes that will affect the company. Furthermore, be seen as a critical person in the organization.

Unfortunately, this is no overnight task. In fact, it requires establishing your consistent role as an influencer in the organization. Start from the small things and work your way up. Moreover, remember that influencing from the middle means being trusted by other people.

"The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it."– Theodore Roosevelt

Be your boss’ wingman

For the record, this is not following your boss around and becoming a tushy-kissing employee. Rather, be there to augment your boss’ skills and knowledge. Becoming the wingman means providing the needed follow through on projects and tasks. Also, there are times when you have to remind others about specific tasks and events that have to be accomplished. As a wingman, you become a resource so others can accomplish their tasks. You have something to offer the organization so give it.

Be the Go-To Guy or Gal

This is more than making a pot of coffee. In fact, it’s being useful to your boss and your subordinates. When the company sees your contribution, they will rely on you more. There are many instances when I tell people that they should be happy when they have lots of things to do. This means the top guys trust them to do many tasks. Besides, employees must be wary when the company takes away tasks from them. Slowly, they may find themselves without employment.

Being the go to person entails a wide breadth and depth of knowledge. The more that you know becomes a powerful tool for your success as a middle manager.

Have you innovated anything at work?

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Help innovate

One essential task of middle managers is to improve their processes. Whether it’s cutting cost, speeding up delivery or improving quality outputs, middle managers need to be in constant look out for innovations.

Innovation requires that you know your process well. So if you have no clue what your department is doing, now is the time to read the department’s manual. If you don’t have one, probably you need to start making one.

Also, you need to learn from others. Check out other departments and what they are doing. The best practices in one department may be the key to your department’s success. Moreover, why stop at other departments, you may even want to explore what other companies are doing. There’s an innumerable sources of innovation. Start looking where you have not searched before. Surely, you will find something worth implementing in your company.

The Art of Leading from the Middle

  • Prove your worth as a leader
  • Share your honest opinion - when asked
  • Be your boss' wingman
  • Be the Go-to guy/gal
  • Help innovate
  • Widen your perspective
  • Invest in relationships

Widen your perspective

As middle managers, you should put on a different set of spectacles. You no longer worry about “what’s in it for me” but rather, think about the department, the division, the company and the industry. Of course what you can benefit from your action is still important, but you should see your work through a bigger lens.

A wider perspective helps you decide on matters that will affect not just yourself, but your co-workers and other departments. Moreover, having a wider perspective will help you see the interrelationships of different departments and divisions. When you connect the dots between departments, you will eventually see how everything works together. Conversely, this will also give you an idea about the pitfalls that hamper your company’s success.

Ultimately, having a wider perspective allows you to see every person’s role in the department. Then, you will see how that department affects the company. Finally, you will gain a deeper appreciation of how your company influences the industry.

Widening your perspective does not come naturally for many. It’s a conscious undertaking to see beyond what others may see.

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Invest in relationships

It’s fairly difficult to influence people if you have not established a healthy relationship. As such, investing in relationships is the most important venture any person can make. But be wary, this is not about being Mr. Congeniality. Rather, it’s about building a strong connection founded on trust and respect.

  • Remember that the workplace is a melting pot of different people – respect the differences
  • Create a professional working relationship with everyone
  • Listen to people, “listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story” - desiderata
  • Help other employees develop and succeed
  • Value opinions of others
  • You can’t do everything so learn ask help from others

The quality of your relationship can dictate the quality of your leadership. So start nurturing every relationship that you have.

Any person can lead. But since you are delegated the middle manager position, it is your responsibility to lead the people. The art of leading from the middle is no easy endeavor. Obviously, this is why you are there. Middle managers have tremendous power. Most do not recognize it thus they fail to harness its power.

Remember that leadership is not where you are in the corporate food chain; it’s how you influence people all around you.

So, are you ready to lead from the middle?

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    • jpcmc profile imageAUTHOR

      JP Carlos 

      4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Hello there Easy Exercise, Thank you for your insights on the subjects. Many leaders do forget the importance of being connected with others. Simple things do matter. And most of the time, these simple things play a critical role in effective leadership.

    • Easy Exercise profile image

      Kelly A Burnett 

      4 years ago from United States

      Hi Jpcmc,

      Connecting with others is an art that must be cultivated. Working with others only works if we are connected and if we are not connected, we cannot influence others. Great topic and very well presented. It reminds all of us to connect with others and be a leader of positive change.

    • jpcmc profile imageAUTHOR

      JP Carlos 

      4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Hi TIMETRAVELER2 ,

      Thank you for that. I appreciate it.

    • TIMETRAVELER2 profile image

      Sondra Rochelle 

      4 years ago from USA

      You've got a typo in your title...manager is incorrectly spelled.

    • jpcmc profile imageAUTHOR

      JP Carlos 

      4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Thanks for dropping by Chris M. I hope more managers learn how to do it right.

    • profile image

      Chris M 

      4 years ago

      Very good info on managing

    • jpcmc profile imageAUTHOR

      JP Carlos 

      4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Hello DDE, It's nice to see you again. Thank you for the kind words about the hub. I hope more people realize the amount of influence they have on others and use it wisely.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Informative, useful and most helpful indeed with such valuable points mentioned

    • jpcmc profile imageAUTHOR

      JP Carlos 

      4 years ago from Quezon CIty, Phlippines

      Hi there Evan Smiley,

      Learn as much as you can. Good luck when you go into the real world.

    • profile image

      Evan Smiley 

      4 years ago

      This is a really informative and helpful hub! As a college student, I'm soon going into the "real world" and this is all very helpful to know! Thanks for the hub!

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