Middle Leadership

John Kotter has focused much of his career on distinguishing between leadership and management. He wrote a terrific piece for HBR that talks about how many are still using the two terms interchangeably. When they do differentiate between leadership and management, it tends to be along hierarchical lines: leaders are the folks at the top and managers are those in the middle. It’s why the term “middle leadership” is not as popular as middle management. But organizations should have middle leaders and lower leaders too. For an organization to succeed, they need leaders throughout.

To go back to Kotter’s helpful definitions: managers are people who manage the processes that keep an organization running well. They plan and budget. They decide how to assign the resources at their disposal. They execute the plan, monitor the progress, and put controls in place to make sure that risks are minimized. Then they analyze the results. Leaders are different. Whereas managers focus on historical and present results, leaders are future-focused. Leaders try to look into the future to see if and how that strategy needs to shift to stay competitive.

Leaders need to create a vision of the future and communicate that vision to everyone within the organization. They must motivate and inspire people to buy in to that vision. Without change, organizations eventually die and leaders are the people who make necessary change happen.But that vision does not have come only from the top. A branch plant can have a vision. A department can have a vision. A project team can have a vision. In fact, if the only driver of change is someone at the very top who makes 100 times the salary of the average employee, it will be hard to get everyone on board. The trickle down theory does not work for organizations particularly well: energy must be infused at all levels for change efforts to persist. If there are leaders at all levels of the organization who have bought into their own version of the vision and can encourage their teams to buy into it too, change is much less painful and more likely to stick.

The nice thing is, leadership can be cultivated at all levels. A leader can be the front line retail manager who knows when a staff member can go off script to satisfy a customer. A leader can be a sales manager who eases his team through a territory reorganization. A leader can be a project manager who has to expand the project’s scope. Companies are smart to recognize and reward leadership talent at all levels rather than limiting the practice of leadership to  the executive suite.