Leading from the middle

At a breakfast yesterday hosted by Bleeker, we had an in-depth discussion about leadership, & how to lead others. 

Leadership is a word that means different things to different people. We went around the room and no two people had the same definition of leadership. 

At one point the discussion evolved into style metaphors - e.g. servant leadership, leading from the front, leading from the back. Someone said they prefer to 'lead from the middle'. It's the first time I've heard this metaphor, and it really resonated.

The essence of leadership isn't about, on one hand, making a lot of decisions that cascade down through the organization, top down. Nor is it only supporting the team 'from behind' & getting the most out of every individual. It's both of those things. Leadership emerges out of knowing when to lead from the front, and when to lead from the back. When to employ wartime tactics, and when there's enough relative peace to focus on process. Achieving the right balance at the right time - staying fully present to the exact time and place the organization finds itself in - is leadership. In order to recognize this, you need to be in the middle. 

The same is true for team management. A common scenario that founders or senior team members find themselves in: person x just joined the organization and needs a lot of support. How much guidance should I provide? Should I be directive or much more hands off? 

The answer of course is it depends. Specifically it depends on the unique qualities of the two individuals - the manager and the managed. And the core values of the organization, as well as the specific time and place within its evolution. There are no template answers. In light of this, knowing the right way to proceed is leading from the middle. 

This is the danger of personality assessment frameworks (Myers-Briggs, etc.). These frameworks tend to assume a static environment and static personalities. In my experience the real world is much more complex. As soon as a unique individual is reduced to a box of 16 (or whatever), there's too much temptation to oversimplify how its best to interact with that individual. There are about 7.5 billion boxes in the world today. The best a leader can do is stay fully present to the needs of the individual and organization at that time. As soon as decisions are made based non-context specific rules or frameworks, problems emerge. 

This means that our organizations exist in a state of unending change & complexity. Leading from the middle is the ability to keep in balance the needs of the organization at that specific time - which is always evolving - and the needs of the specific individuals within the organization - who, like the company, are also always evolving.