Lead From the Middle


I have never been a top dog. I’ve never owned a company; I’ve never been the principal of a school; I’ve never run a country, been chairman of the board, or been the captain of a sports team. I have always been right in the middle--sometimes toward the bottom of the middle, and sometimes toward the top. Yet I have always had to figure out how to influence people above and around me to change.

Whether you want to change the color of the carpet in the office or you want to see your organization make significant changes, here are a few things I have picked up along the way that will help you lead from the middle.

  • Never Stop Learning. There is nothing more annoying than a know-it-all. And when she is right, she is even more annoying. Lifelong learners, on the other hand, have a spirit of humility. They are always looking for an opportunity to learn. And so they are able to convince others to change because of their attitude.

  • Always Add Value. In every interaction, every relationship, every day-- look to add value to others, expecting nothing in return. Do this until it becomes as natural as breathing. You will be amazed how this increases your influence exponentially.

  • Identify the Influencers. In any group, a few people are the influencers. They are not always the positional leaders. They don’t always have a title. But when a new idea is proposed, all heads turn to look at the one or two influencers to see how they will respond. It is a good idea to identify the influencers and begin meeting them one-on-one. Work through them, not around them. Invite them; don’t inform them.

  • Listen Carefully. Few have practiced and far fewer have perfected this true art. Listening takes time. It takes an authentic desire to learn. And it sometimes requires going past the words to the underlying values. Maybe your coworker is fighting for that particular logo because he’s really passionate about it. But maybe it’s because it reminds him of a favorite childhood memory.

  • Pay Attention to Timing. In an organizational setting, suggesting a change on the wrong day may mean you lose months of progress. You might have to loosen up on your plans a little bit and use some discernment on the right time to pitch your idea.

  • Share Stories. People are not nearly as interested in what you want to change as why you want to change it. So link every suggested change back to how it will affect people and how it will accomplish the purposes of the organization. The right stories help reduce negative emotion and increase positive emotion in any major change.

One more thing. Even those people who you think are in the position of top dog are not really. They have boards to whom they are accountable and officials who want reports. They have family demands and customers to keep happy. So cut them some slack and follow the advice of the writer of Hebrews who said of leadership, “...Listen to their counsel...Contribute to the joys of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?”

Excerpted from “Pop Goes the Church,” chapter 11