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Leading From The Middle

Clay Scroggins wrote a really helpful book titled How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge. He effectively challenged the distorted view that you can only lead when you are in charge. This is probably the biggest idea that causes people to forfeit their leadership. If you agree that leadership is influence, then anyone should be able to lead from anywhere. Influence is the ability to change one’s thinking and behavior. And that means we all have influence. We can all lead.

John Maxwell popularized the concept that leadership is influence He said that “99% of all leadership occurs, not from the top, but from the middle of an organization.” He says that you develop the skill to lead from wherever you are in the organization by becoming a 360-degree leader, and he spells it out in specific detail in his book The 360 Degree Leader.

Maxwell identifies two myths that keep us from leading where we are:

Leadership comes from having a position or title. This position myth, that you can’t lead if you’re not at the top, couldn’t be further than the truth. The erroneous thinking of this myth is that leadership is position, not influence. When potential leaders understand the dynamics of gaining influence with people, they come to realize that position has little to do with genuine leadership. You can lead others from anywhere in the organization, and when you do, you make the organization better. The bottom line is this: Leadership is a choice you make, not a place you sit. Anyone can choose to become a leader wherever he or she is. When you DON’T lead from where you are, you simply create dead weight in the organization.

When I get to the top, then I’ll learn to lead. This is the destination myth. These people think that something magical is going to happen when they reach their desired position or leadership destination that will instantly transform them into a leader. If you want to succeed, you need to learn as much as you can about leadership before you have a leadership position. Good leadership is learned in the trenches. Leading as well as they can wherever they are is what prepares leaders for more and greater responsibility. Becoming a good leader is a lifelong learning process. Legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “When opportunity comes, it’s too late to prepare.” Leading today is what prepares a leader for more and greater responsibility tomorrow.

When you are NOT the CEO of your organization, or own your own company, you face several unique leadership challenges. One of these is the fulfillment challenge: Leaders like the front more than the middle. It’s not natural for a good leader to want to “stay put.” Leaders want to be in front, leading. That is a healthy desire, but a leader in the middle must know how to channel it.

Maxwell shares, “Perhaps you’ve heard the old saying about the view from the middle of the pack. It’s said that when you’re the lead dog, your view always changes. If you’re not the lead dog, you always face the same. But the truth of the matter is that the dog in front of the pack isn’t the leader. The person driving the sled is—and that individual is actually in the back.”

So how do you become fulfilled in the middle of the pack? How do you develop an attitude of contentment and fulfillment right where you are? See the big picture.

Maxwell says to start by doing the following five things:

Develop strong relationships with key people.The trick to fulfillment isn’t making every interaction with others go smoothly; it comes from developing strong relationships with them. It’s more important to get along with people than to get ahead of them. If you make it your goal to reach out to others and build relationships with them, you’ll derive fulfillment wherever you are.

Define a win in terms of teamwork. Coach Wooden said, “The main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.” In other words, teamwork is what creates success, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that. One player may be crucial to a team, but one player cannot make a team. That is also true of leaders. One leader, no matter how good, does not make a team.

Engage in continual communication. As you interact with your leaders, let them know how you are advancing the vision. Get their feedback and ask questions to find out if there are other things you should know to more effectively pass on the vision to others.

Gain experience and maturity. Maturity doesn’t come automatically. My friend Ed Cole often said, “Maturity doesn’t come with age. It begins with the acceptance of responsibility.”

Put the team above your personal success. When the stakes are high, good team members put the success of the team ahead of their own personal gain.

Leadership is needed at every level in every area of an organization. So we can never have too many leaders as long as we don’t think of leadership as only one position. It is particularly hard to stay satisfied as a leader in the middle if you are dissatisfied with your leader. The thing that leaders from any position must realize is that almost everyone on the team will be stronger than their leader in one way or another. The difficult part is enabling the leader to see and admit it without surrendering his/her authority, and enabling the leaders from the middle to develop the art of leading without rebellion or disrespect.

In their book, Managing Up, Michael and Deborah Dobson describe the situation in a story: Imagine you’re in the doctor’s office. Patients are in the waiting room when a person walks in with a gun. Instantly that person has influence and the power to control people’s behavior. We assume that to persuade them, we’d have to get a gun ourselves. No doubt, that would be the easiest way to do it.

But, we’ve all heard stories of someone who talked someone out of shooting a gun, committing a crime or even committing suicide. It was done through trust and relationship. To influence in that context—you must earn it. The same is true with positions in an organization. Your boss has the gun. Their position lends them the power to change behavior. The truth is brilliant leaders and team members don’t lean on their position (their gun) but develop trust and relationships on their team. They earn it by doing things like modeling excellence in their current tasks, demonstrating public loyalty for their leader, offering help and lightening the load of their leader, sacrificing and being willing to do what others aren’t. That is what enhances and grows your leadership.

Leadership is a choice you make rather than a place you sit. Even when you’re not in front, you’re still leading those around you. You can grow and lead well from where you are.

Know when to push and when to back off. Given your unique vantage point in the organization, you will have some knowledge your leader lacks. Know when giving your input will aid your leader in reaching a decision and when it will merely complicate matters.

You can be better tomorrow than you are today. You can be a leader of excellence today and tomorrow.

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