Friday, 19 July 2013 11:20

Leading From the Middle

In these uncertain times, credibility and trust in senior leaders and their capacity to move organisations has taken a nosedive. Now is a golden opportunity for leaders in the middle to step up and launch a rescue operation to fill the gap and advance their career.

Leaders are almost by definition people who change minds.  —Howard E. Gardner, Leading Minds

There is a lack of trust in senior management, according to a survey by the human-resource firm Watson Wyatt:

iStock 000003183727Small2 300x211 Leading From the Middle

  •     Only 49 percent of employees have trust and confidence in their senior managers.
  •     Just 55 percent say senior leaders behave consistently with core values.
  •     Only 53 percent believe senior management has made the right changes to stay competitive.

Clearly, much is going wrong in the workplace. Some 40 percent of surveyed executives doubt their leaders have credible plans to address the uncertain economic outlook. Certainly, this lack of confidence harms an organisation’s ability to move forward.

In light of these problems, middle managers have unprecedented opportunities to become more proactive by stepping forward and offering course corrections — and they should act with deliberate speed. Good times allow organisations to ride out challenges, but today’s tough financial climate won’t permit a wait-and-see approach.

While senior executives don’t set out to fail, research shows they make several common mistakes:

  •     80 percent fail because of ineffective communication skills and practices.
  •     79 percent fail because of poor work relationships and interpersonal skills.
  •     69 percent fail because of person/job mismatch.
  •     61 percent fail because they didn’t clarify direction and performance expectations.
  •     56 percent fail because of delegation and empowerment breakdowns.

When strong leadership doesn’t come from above, it’s up to the organisation itself — in particular, the people in the middle — to launch a rescue operation.

What’s Happening

You see a problem. There’s a clear need for action within a certain time frame. You’ve discussed the issues and possible solutions many times with your boss, and she has agreed with your way of thinking. For unexplained reasons, she hasn’t acted or given you the go-ahead. What do you do?

This could be a situation in which you take action and lead your boss. You develop a plan on your own, gather data (both pro and con), suggest a course of action and ask permission to move forward.

In doing so, you’re filling a leadership void through prompt decision-making and follow-through. You’re demonstrating what it takes to “manage upward,” or lead your boss. But you’ll soon discover that you need buy-in from more people, including peers and subordinates. You’ll have to become a leader without authority — an ambassador sans portfolio.

Emerging from the Middle

Those who succeed at leading from the middle are artful, skilled managers who:

  •     Establish goals
  •     Plan projects
  •     Organize people
  •     Execute projects on time and on budget

To accomplish this, you must rethink what you want to achieve and how you’re going to do it. In essence, you’re not acting for yourself, but for the good of the organisation. This requires initiative, persuasion, influence, courage and persistence.

Perhaps the most crucial element is a large dose of passion. You must care deeply and want to make a difference because such efforts can carry big risks.

“Leading up requires great courage and determination,” says Michael Useem, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the seminal book Leading Up: Managing Your Boss So You Both Win. “We might fear how our superior will respond, we might doubt our right to lead up, but we all carry a responsibility to do what we can when it will make a difference.”

3 Questions to Ask

According to John Baldoni, author of Lead Your Boss, managers who lead up demonstrate they’re aware of the bigger picture. They’re ready, willing and able to do whatever it takes to strengthen the organisation and team.

Baldoni urges readers to ask themselves three questions:

  1.     What does the leader need? The boss is responsible for motivating her people to get things right. Take the time to shift your perspective from your own world view to the priorities and concerns weighing on the mind of your boss. What does she need to do her job better? To help her, you’ll need to think more strategically and act tactically.
  2.     What does the team need? Teams don’t always pull together because egos get in the way. The boss ends up spending valuable time soothing hurt feelings. What if a team member were to step up into the role of “coach” and help bring everyone together? This would free the boss to focus on bigger issues, and the team would be more productive.
  3.     What can I do to help the leader and team succeed? Perhaps you can take on more responsibility or step back and let others rally. Maybe you can sacrifice a personal need that allows the team to conquer a challenge. What will it take to help everyone push ahead?

When you can answer these questions and formulate an action plan, you’ll have a roadmap for leading your boss in ways that make her look good and the team succeed. You’ll  emerge as a team player who is adept at making the right things happen.

Your ability to lead up is an indication of your potential to become a senior leader. How you demonstrate initiative, overcome obstacles and promote resilience are critical measures of senior leadership. If you influence your boss and convince others to work together, you’ll open the door to future promotions and the chance to lead the entire organisation.

The View from Above

Developing managers who can lead from the middle is a sound management practice that won’t undermine a CEO’s authority. When middle managers take ownership of issues, make decisions and accept accountability for the results, their bosses have the freedom to think and act strategically, without getting bogged down in tactical matters.

This not only creates a stronger organisation in the short run, but it equips emerging leaders for greater challenges and advancement to senior leadership positions. And with flagging confidence in today’s senior leaders, there’s no better time for leadership to come from below.

What’s Needed to Lead Up?

To lead up, you must:

  •     Establish trust by following through on your commitments; be impeccable with your word; do what you say you’ll do.
  •     Connect with others authentically and honestly.
  •     Get out of the spotlight; share the credit with others.
  •     Demonstrate that you can think and act for the boss by taking initiative and following through.
  •     Use common sense; think before you act; listen to others.
  •     Do what’s practical to help the organisation achieve its goals.

You will also need to think and act strategically, which requires creativity and imagination:

  •     Think critically and strategically.
  •     Challenge the status quo and conventionality.
  •     Reframe opportunities.
  •     Get out of your office or your cubicle and be seen.
  •     Turn information into knowledge.
  •     Deal with ambiguity and uncertainty.

Assertive Diplomacy

Taking initiative requires assertiveness, confidence and decisiveness. Effective leaders radiate power and seem to be in total control.

But too much assertiveness (i.e., aggressiveness) drives people away, discourages collaboration and causes people to resist your influence.

Assertiveness, by definition, is the outcome of acting like a leader; that is, it gives people a reason to believe in your abilities to decide, act and lead others.

Managers on the way up want to ensure they’re seen as “assertive enough.” Those at or near the top are often advised to be “less assertive.” In truth, there’s a special kind of assertiveness that is just right — a quiet confidence and power that Baldoni calls “reflective assertiveness.” It emerges from experiences, including one’s trials and triumphs. It requires both humility and resilience.

To cultivate reflective assertiveness, you must:

  1.     Listen first. A leader’s ability to listen signals that she values others’ ideas and input.
  2.     Ask what people think.  Some employees can be reluctant to offer their input.   Di Worrall in A Climate for Change, asserts that by going out of her way to encourage employee views, a leader demonstrates the fine balance between humility and assertiveness that encourages collaboration and greatly enhances trust.  
  3.     Keep it low. People know where power lies. You don’t need to advertise it. If you model quiet power, you can remain calm when tempers fly.
  4.     Act decisively. The payoff to reflective assertiveness is decisiveness. You demonstrate strength by acting confidently. Even if you need some time to think before taking action, you can keep people informed about how the decision-making process is progressing.

Challenge Ideas, Not People

It takes gumption to challenge assumptions and the status quo. Middle managers must care enough to shake things up, and they’re in a perfect position to see what doesn’t work.

Those who resist your ideas will undoubtedly outnumber your supporters at first, but persistence pays off. Begin by challenging “the way we’ve always done it.” You must be willing to rethink options. Only then can you create new possibilities and solutions.

At the same time, you may find it uncomfortable to challenge those in authority. It’s a natural feeling. The trick is to challenge assumptions, not the individuals in positions of power. Focus on ideas, not personalities.

Push Back

Not all bosses want to be led. Some fear their authority will be undermined. Others are so insecure that leadership from below is a threat that must be stamped out at all cost.

These obstacles shouldn’t prevent you from trying to lead your boss, when appropriate. Observe the following guidelines:

  •     Stick with the facts. Management is rooted in valid data, so build your arguments with fact-based evidence. Make sure your research is on point, and dig to find other points of view so you can counter them.
  •     Ask others to challenge your premise. Before presenting your ideas to your boss, find people who can play devil’s advocate and explore your assumptions. They will either disprove your premise and prompt you to rethink your course of action, or they will validate your path and boost your confidence.
  •     Don’t confuse causation with correlation. Just because there’s a link between two issues doesn’t mean one provoked the other.

Dealing with a Jerk Boss

In some cases, all of the best data in the world won’t convince your boss that you’re right. If he’s a jerk, he’s probably insecure. He acts tough because he’s afraid of losing his job and control over others.

Jerk bosses cannot be reasoned with, so don’t even try. Remember that you always have a choice: You can roll over, fight back or leave. Choose wisely.

Bounce Back

Ultimately, what really matters is how we recover when things don’t go our way. Resilience gives you the strength you need when faced with rejection.

Review these points:

  •     What happened?
  •     What could I have done better?
  •     What did I learn?

The resilience to bounce back from a raw deal distinguishes those who succeed from those who become stuck, bitter and angry. It’s important for you to remain focused on goals and engaged in the process of fulfilling them.

True leaders will step up to the plate, regardless of where they fall on the organisational food chain. They see a need and are driven to find solutions. When they distrust their senior leaders, they spot opportunities to step in, lead up and prove their value.

Never give up on your dreams, and continue your pursuit of making a difference.

D Worrall (2010)


Baldoni, J. (2009) Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up. AMACOM.

Gardner, H.E. (1996 ) Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership. Basic Books.

Useem, M (2003)  Leading Up: Managing Your Boss So You Both Win. Three Rivers Press.

Watson Wyatt WorkUSA® 2006/2007 Survey

Worrall, D (2009) A Climate for Change, Life Success Publishing.

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