The phrase “Leading from the Middle” has been popping up all over the nonprofit world lately. From articles to blogs to conference breakout sessions, it seems people are quite eager to teach us how to “Lead from the Middle.”
After doing some research, asking around, and even requesting a fellow YNPNer do an e-news piece on the topic, I have come to a conclusion: “Leading from the Middle” is a flashy phrase with little substance.
It’s not that I don’t think people can lead from a middle management position. I do believe there are some strategies out there that may help in doing this. But the blanket concept of “Leading from the Middle,” particularly when taken as something that could impact a wide swath of nonprofit professionals, is just not helpful. Here’s why:
The concept of “Leading from the Middle” (and the lack of a similar concept like “Leading from the Bottom”) implies you must reach a certain level within an organization to be a leader. Having seen people at all levels of an organization exhibit strong leadership qualities, I simply don’t believe this is true.
The middle of what?
Nonprofit organizations come in all shapes and sizes. A person in “the middle” of a three-staff-member nonprofit has a vastly different role than the person in “the middle” at a hundred-staff-member nonprofit. To suggest these two people should use the same leadership strategies as a blanket policy is not very realistic.
Nonprofit organizational structures are changing. The recent YNPN National Survey found many young professionals believe flatter organization structures lead to stronger collaboration and more successful leadership. It will be difficult to lead from the middle in organizations where the middle disappears.
The advice I’ve read on “Leading from the Middle” is not truly about leadership—it’s about creating organizational change. Let’s face it; creating organizational change is not the same as leadership. It is, instead, a byproduct of leadership. And leadership must come first.
The good news is you don’t need to be at any particular place to be a leader. You can—and should—“Lead from Wherever You Are.”
I’m not going to pretend to have all the answers about how you can establish yourself as a leader. There are thousands of books and resources out there on leadership development, and I’ve only read a handful. But I will point out a few traits I’ve seen demonstrated by strong leaders at all levels of an organization. And I hope you’ll add your own observations in the comments below.
Produce high-quality work.
Simple, right? But there’s a lot of sub-quality work being produced out there. Be one of the people your colleagues can always count on for a top-notch job. They’ll learn to rely on you in clutch situations and will look to you as someone who leads by example.
Be professional, but be yourself.
Professionalism goes a long way toward earning respect in the workplace. Handle problems calmly and through the proper channels. Speak and dress appropriately for your workplace. But don’t be a clone. Part of leadership is showing your own unique personality. Use your sense of humor to cheer up co-workers during a stressful time, or spread holiday spirit by bringing cookies to share with the office. You can be professional and have a personality. In fact, you need to if you’re going to lead.
Don't wait for change.
If you see a problem within your organization, think about what you—from wherever you are—can do to change it. If you work in development and feel your organization is too siloed, make it a point to attend programming events. If you believe all employees at your organization should understand the role of volunteers, ask if you can go through the application and orientation process. Figure out what you can do to start solving a problem. It may be more than you think.
So forget about leading from the middle. Lead now, from wherever you are. And yes, I mean you.
What do you think about “Leading from the Middle?” What leadership traits have you seen in strong leaders?