In articles on leadership, we mostly see and hear about leaders at the top of organizations. But there is another role of leadership that is critical to the success of organizations: leading from the middle.

Leading from the middle is typically known as middle management. Sandwiched between executives and staff, middle managers are the heart and soul of an organization. They work in the trenches alongside staff and are directly responsible for mobilizing teams to implement project requirements. As such, they have a keen understanding of the challenges of getting work done. Limited time and resources, budget constraints, and ever-changing requirements are often daily issues. Excellent middle managers navigate these challenges with ease and ensure that objectives are met.

Leading from the middle requires a specific set of skills. My horse Lila models this powerful leadership role in equine-assisted learning sessions with teams. In this photo, a human leader had set the vision; Lila then worked with her team to implement it. Lila loves to be supported by others committed to a common vision. She and the team accomplished the goal: to walk together across a pole.  From this session with Lila, the group learned that it takes the following to successfully lead from the middle:

  1. Great communication skills – You must be an excellent listener with the ability to gain clarity by asking questions. You must be able to quickly distill information down to essential points and share it with others. Great middle managers avoid dwelling on the “back-story” and get right to the point to save time.
  2. Confidence and calm – No wants to follow a drama queen. Great middle managers inspire trust based on their confident and calm demeanor and ability to keep their cool in chaos.
  3. Fast problem-solving – Middle managers must figure out how to get a job done regardless of limitations. Instead of saying “we can’t do it” in the face of perceived constraints, they say “here’s what we can do.” They are flexible and able to quickly shift directions. They work with their team to innovate on the spot and find solutions.
  4. Resilience – Burnout is a reality for middle managers. The pressure can be overwhelming. Great middle managers are resilient and know how to manage stress. They quickly bounce back from the inevitable challenges of their work and they don’t take things personally.
  5. Great collaboration skills – Middle managers are masters at relationship-building and engaging others to help. They freely share knowledge, tools, and resources and in return receive loyalty and help from others.

The group also noticed that to successfully lead from the middle, you must manage up, across, and down.

  • Manage up – Regularly check-in with supervisors and other leaders involved in a project to be sure you are clear on the goal and any shifts in direction. Let them know where you are in the project and provide feedback on how things are going. Do not wait for them to come to you! Ask how you may best support them.
  • Manage across – Meet regularly with your colleagues to gain buy-in and support. This is especially important in matrixed teams to access additional resources, build loyalty and inspire collaboration. Get out of your office and talk with others.
  • Manage down – Be sure to communicate regularly with your staff on the project’s direction. Ask for feedback on how things are going and be open to suggestions to improve the effort.

A fantastic middle manager is a CEO’s dream. Senior leaders and executives would be wise to make a special effort to recognize these valuable assets. Lila is one of my most valuable assets!

And truly, these skills apply to all great leaders, not just middle managers.