How can I lead within middle management?

How can I lead within middle management?

How can I lead within middle management?
By Pete Hall

Middle management. The ultimate opportunity to test your leadership mettle. On one hand, you’re responsible for carrying out the directives, legislation, and initiatives provided to you from the higher-ups; on the other, you’re obligated to inspire, direct, and generate growth within your own team.

From this position (branch manager, section director, school principal, etc – you know who you are), how can you both follow and lead in authentic ways? That’s a question that wakes up many of us in the middle of the night, dripping in sweat and craving a BLT.

Following and leading can work interdependently with one another. Doing both well creates the strongest link between organizational direction and individual performance.

Let’s begin by examining the first chain: following. Middle managers are part of a larger organization. Multiple tiers of owners, executives, directors, boards, and other powers all have a significant amount of say in how our organizations are established, what our priorities are, and what expectations are provided. So you’ve got to be a good soldier and follow orders, passing them down the line. By itself, that’s a manageable directive, except…

…there’s a second chain: leading. You’re expected to lead. You’re obligated to meet your agreed-upon goals, stewarding your allocated funding, adhering to local socio-political influences, championing your community, and handling employees, direct reports, and support staff. The key metrics all come down to defined outcomes incumbent to your market and expertise, so clearly there’s a need for local authority and decision-making, except…

…for that first chain. Decisions made by the universal powers-that-be don’t always meet local needs.

Fret not. This is work that can be done — and done exceptionally well. As a middle manager, you can be the strongest link.

Before you begin panicking and raiding the fridge, there’s hope found in a couple strategies for managing your middle-management responsibilities with savvy:

Align everything to the mision. That’s right, mision: that amazing place where your mission (the reason the organization exists in the first place) and your vision (what it looks like and feels like when it’s going spectacularly well) coexist. Are you and your stakeholders, superiors, and colleagues clear on your mision? Are all your ships headed in the same direction?

  • Understand your charge. As a team, unpack your directives. What are your long-term goals? What is the board’s current comprehensive plan? What are the results you’ve been assigned to achieve? Knowing what exactly you’ve been charged to do helps to align the rest of your work toward the mandated targets. You’re going to be linking to this chain, so it behooves you to be clear on the content and direction.
  • Define the outcomes. Together, ask each other what success looks like; how your department/office will look in 1, 3, and 5 years; what goals will drive your work; why this work is important. Take the time to unpack comments to paint a clear and compelling picture of a desirable future. Refer to this often (in leadership retreats I facilitate, we often draw an image and describe it – that becomes your de facto “logo”). Feel free to use our Visioning protocol to walk your team through this process, step by step.
  • Clarify your priorities. Isolate the non-negotiables, determining what’s tight (we’re going to focus on creating a positive experience for customers no matter what, for instance) and what’s loose (flexible ways we can empower staff to adhere to the “customer is always right” mantra while monitoring the bottom-line). Defining parameters allows adherence to imposed initiatives and puts local staff at ease, feeling they’ve still got some ownership and choice in how the work is done.

Connect every single individual to the mision. Great leaders do two things really well: they identify what everyone has in common in order to work together and row in unison toward the goal, and they uncover what drives and inspires each person – in order to link individual efforts to the collective goal.

  • Ignite individual passion. Every individual you lead got into this work for a reason. What is that reason? Are you aware of it? Does the person know it? On a regular basis, sit down with each of your direct reports, each member of your team. Get to know them, find common ground that enhances your relationships, and investigate. Ask questions that peel back the layers of that artichoke until you get to the heart: surfacing why folks entered the profession in the first place, why they stay, and what determines their success and personal happiness. By naming and defining the source of our people’s passion, we are more apt to connect them to the mision
  • Embed everything. Set goals and action plans that support each other, like Russian nesting dolls – each fits within the greater structure. When individual employees’ performance goals help the team meet its goal, that enables the team to be successful, which moves the branch closer to its goals, helping the entire organization achieve success as well. Then budget time, resources, professional development opportunities, and communication structures in such a way that orients all our work towards the mision. Everyone relies on everyone else, and the entire operation begins working in concert with one another – interdependency rules, and networks of scaffolded support are inherently built-in.

Middle management is daunting, and… it’s an opportunity to make an immense difference. Are you up to the challenge? Are you willing to do what it takes to succeed? If so, work strategically, get a good night’s sleep, embrace the mision, and change people’s lives. You can become the strongest link in the chain.

Pete Hall is the President/CEO of Strive Success Solutions. You can reach him via email at

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