Leading From the Middle

“I need some help.” I finally had a moment to catch my brother for a quick phone call. I needed leadership advice and I knew I could lean on him—a decorated war veteran and military leader. I quickly filled him in on the current challenges I was facing.

He listened well but then brushed past my complaints. “Nicole, you’ll spend most of your career leading up to your superiors or leading across in ambiguous situations. You need to learn to do it well.”

Since that conversation, I’ve recognized that leading from the middle—having a manager above you but also leading your own team is a stage most leaders would prefer to skip. But powerful middle leaders are crucial to an organization’s success.  Lead well, and you can have great influence on your organization’s health and success. Lead poorly, and you’ll drag down not only those you lead, but also those that lead you. Here’s five lessons I’ve learned from the middle:

Recognize Your Influence.
Middle players are indispensable. From the middle, leaders tend to have a better pulse on what’s going on in the organization at the customer or junior staff level, while also having access to senior-level priorities and decision-making. Although authority at this level may be ambiguous, influence is not. If you are leading from the middle, you have the opportunity to influence both people and decisions, perhaps more than any other time in your leadership. Strive to steward your influence well.

Be a Unity Ambassador.
One of the most fascinating case studies on leadership is King David’s young career. After being anointed as king, David still waited more than fifteen years before he reigned. Despite Saul’s wickedness, and David running for his life from Saul’s anger and jealousy, David refused to kill Saul even when given the opportunity. 1 Samuel 24 records David explaining to his men that he would not lift his hand to “the Lord’s anointed.” David remained loyal to Saul through his poor leadership until God made the way for David to succeed him as king. David’s steadfast unity in the face of persecution not only influenced Saul but also impacted David’s own men.

Be a unity ambassador by making sure you choose words of loyalty and respect about those around you and above you. There’s a song from the 1980s: “I always feel like somebody’s watching me.” It’s true—your teams are watching you, and how to react to unpopular decisions or sticky situations is crucial. And when you confront or challenge your manager about an issue, do so in private.

Champion the Culture.
As a middle leader, you have access to the crucial intangibles that make your organization unique—the language, values and ideals that set you apart. Many of your younger staff and key volunteers don’t have access to that direct line, so it’s your role to make sure that culture is being translated to every level of the organization. Take every opportunity to teach culture to those you influence—in words, and in actions. Tell the stories of why things are done a certain way, or why seemingly minor decisions have major impacts. Study your culture and be a champion of it, and provide course corrections when needed.

Be an Encourager.
Senior leaders often bear the brunt of the thorny issues and difficulties of the organization, but are less likely to hear the stories of success that can fuel their work. As a middle leader, you have the opportunity to be an encourager, both of your senior leader’s work as well as the organization as a whole. Be intentional about sharing success stories. Give specific feedback about ways you are learning from your leader. Express gratitude and positivity, taking Colossians 3 as a charge: “whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as if working for the Lord.”

Be a Learner.
You aren’t a rookie anymore—you’ve come a long way. But you also aren’t a senior leader yet—you have a long way to go. Hold together both confidence and humility in your leadership. Allow yourself to be corrected and turn around and teach those lessons to those that you lead. Don’t hold your calling in contempt. God has chosen this “time and place” (Acts 17:26) for you to live and work, and until He makes a different way, live out your assignment with purpose.

Nicole Unice

Nicole Unice is a counselor and author of She’s Got Issues and Brave Enough. She is the ministry director at Hope Church in Richmond, Virginia and wife to Dave and mom to three fabulous kids, age 7-12.


Join the discussion