Leadership in the Middle Space


This week I want to talk about something that’s been all over these pages, and in our book, Leadership Matters. And that’s the idea that we can lead from anywhere in the room.  I still believe it’s possible to act like a leader even if you’re not the CEO; to own your position, to go the extra mile. That is that type of behavior where you learn, where you get noticed, and where, potentially, you pull a team along with you. But here’s where I think it is not possible: it’s not possible to take over for an ineffective leader at least not at the department or all-staff level.

This week I had to attend a meeting about meetings. No, it was not a rehearsal for an episode of “The Office.” Sadly, it was real life. And guess what? We emerged from the meeting about meetings with another meeting scheduled to talk more about what we can do to make our meetings better. I could whine on about issues of leadership, but I think it’s more important to address the middle space, the moment when you’re not the leader, when you see the iceberg, but you aren’t the captain of the ship. There were more than a few of us in the room this week who had some vision, but frankly in an all-staff meeting, there’s only one person directing the conversation.

I had a boss once who used to tell me that people don’t change. Secretly, the little Pollyanna inside me always fought that statement. I wanted to believe everybody could change. Older and wiser now, I concede she’s probably right. So what can you do besides attend meetings about meetings? Quit? First, and let me say it pains me to say this, you have to control yourself. You have to get centered and do the best job you can. Part of being centered means finding a way to let off steam, whether it’s running or swimming or kick boxing. Find it and do it. Next, try to keep the leader on track. If she isn’t listening, you have to. Take good notes and spin them back to her. If you don’t understand, if her presentation is murky, ask her to clarify. Repeat it back to her. Third, if you’re going to throw yourself in front of the bulldozers make sure that it’s the appropriate moment, and the hill you want to die on. Fourth, you can always grab some other members of your team who feel like you do, and speak with your boss’s boss. Of course, the nuclear bomb is to go to HR, but in my experience, HR isn’t interested in bad bosses. HR is interested in bosses that are so heinous what they’re doing may result in a lawsuit.

So…if those are the choices is there really an opportunity to lead from the middle of the meeting? Maybe, but it will take way more energy than you ever thought you’d have to invest in a weekly meeting. Apart from taking care of yourself by making sure you’ve got a way to vent some energy, it means the only way to get control of an essentially absurd situation–the adrift meeting during which nothing happens–is by constantly asking questions and repeating the answers back to your CEO, department head or director. Is it enough? I’ll let you know. In the meantime, let us know how you feel about being in the middle space.


One Comment on “Leadership in the Middle Space”

  1. Carolyn Patterson says:

    Couldn’t be a more perfect article for this evening. So true.

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