Q & As | How Do I Lead from the Middle? And What Does that Even Mean?

“Leading from the middle” is one of those phrases we throw around in the nonprofit world, but never clearly define – hoping and trusting that no one will be forward enough to ask us directly what we mean by that. I sat down with Alfonso Wenker, the Director of Development & Communications at PFund, to discuss his experience with this buzzy phase of professional life.

What do you think “leading from the middle” means?

It is noticing and recognizing the strengths you bring to an organization, and putting that foot forward. You recognize the skills or connections that others on your team, even executives, do not have, and find places where you can contribute to those deficits. This means you do not default to “I’m not an Executive Director, so I can’t leverage this relationship, create this partnership, etc.”

What type of person leads from the middle?

It’s not a specific position title, a certain number of years in the organization, or supervising someone else; you never say, “I’ve been here for 18 months, time to start leading from the middle!” It’s about establishing trust with your team. Once you’ve listened to the needs of the organization, and feel you can contribute ideas in a smart way, go for it.

What are some challenges that come along with this type of leadership?

It can be easy to overstep. You’re at the point where the organization respects you, and you don’t want to ruin that for yourself. We all know relationships are everything, and keeping those authentic is extremely important. It’s key to not do your work in isolation, to know the rate of change at your organization, how risk-averse it may be, and to articulate your range of control with others on your team.

What unique opportunities does it present?

You often have the chance to be the voice of the organization to others, promoting not yourself, but the entire organization. Also, you get to bring your own relationships and perspectives to things; you have the ability to make decisions that matter.

How helpful do you feel this term is, or others like it?

My problem with concepts like this is that they create a structure that implies we need to know when we’re “there” (when we’re an “emerging leader,” when we’re “leading from the middle,” when we’re “effectively networking”). As a sector we don’t think intentionally about how to move young professionals through the field, so they latch on to these ill-defined ideas for some sense of movement and structure. We’re obsessed with leadership development, but we don’t do it well, which creates this phenomenon of being over-educated and under-experienced – going to every conference but still struggling to get meaningful work experience that stretches you professionally. These terms aren’t particularly helpful in solving this problem.

With all this in mind, what are the top 3 recommendations you would give to someone who wants to “lead from the middle”?

  • Clearly articulate the alignment of your personal mission and philosophy and the mission of the organization.
  • Have confidence in your own work. Do good work, know you do good work, and then move to have more influence or more of an external face.
  • Develop trust and open communication with your supervisor or Executive Director.

Alfonso Wenker has worked at PFund for 4 years, first as a Program Manager with the grant review process, and now as the Director of Development & Communications. He is originally from the Twin Cities, a graduate of the University of St. Thomas, and a member of EPIP (Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy).

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