Leading from the Middle

Following PDR's Senior Consultant, Christine Mikhail's, presentation to the Greater Houston Partnership's Women's Business Alliance, there has been a lot of interest in her topic of "Leading from the Middle".  As a follow up to the News post, this blog is an expansion on key messages from her presentation.    

Organizations spend time, effort and finances training and developing leaders in executive positions. Of course these efforts are warranted, as the executives are the people that share the organization’s vision, mission and values. Their training is often focused of their efforts to accomplishing the goals they set out for themselves and their respective business units. Executives are often in meetings, strategically planning their next steps to stay the course of success. These are “appointed leaders”, people promoted to their position by other leaders.

However, there are a set of individuals in the company that are often the unsung heroes. The employees in the organization that learned to lead themselves, the middle managers. In most cases, they are often the people holding the organization together. As a colleague once described them, these people are the cream filling of an Oreo. The executives and staff employees are the hard cookie shell and although each layer of the cookie is necessary, the people in the middle of the organization are the ones holding the organization together. They are the individuals who are eager to grow, develop and learn. However, unlike their leaders, they are not given the training tools or workshops to grow. Therefore, they must learn to lead themselves.

Leading themselves begins with understanding the difference between who they are and their role in the company. Each person has strengths and challenges in certain areas and styles of leading. These factors define who they are and not what their role is in the organization. These employees in the middle must grab hold of their role and learn to lead themselves. Upon defining who they are, they then have the ability to set aggressive and realistic goals to develop themselves. 

Use this chart to set challenging goals. Review those goals and   reset.   

Use this chart to set challenging goals. Review those goals and reset.

In addition to knowing their strengths and challenges, it is important to know how they lead. Below is a spectrum of 6 distinct leadership styles. There are no bad styles, in fact people often employ a combination of these styles, but every person has a dominate style. Leaders tailor their style of leading to fit into a specific role, task and/or team dynamic. To be most effective, employees must first identify what type of leader they are and the tasks they wish to accomplish. Once they have done so, they then utilize different aspects of each leadership style to effectively accomplish their goals.

As these middle managers become more successful in their roles, they become the person to whom their colleagues look for advice, mentorship and guidance. They become the “elected leaders”. These are the leaders that have a following of people, respect from upper management and self-pride. The unsung hero is the employee leading from the middle.


Christine Mikhail

Christine is a Senior Consultant at PDR who specializes in the early stages of a design project. As a member of our workplace performance team, Christine has guided several clients through the discovery phase of their projects. Christine is a member of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and is a leader in PDR’s Organizational Design’s  consulting practice that specializes in leadership alignment, coaching and organizational development.