Some of my favorite issues in leadership involve leadership without authority (or power). When I work with teams in organizations, or when I talk with my executive MBA students, I am often confronted by the frustrations of middle managers. The classic problem is that they feel ‘stuck’ in the middle of their companies. They are not at the top of the company, so they say that they cannot influence major decisions or change the way the place works.
While I do not wish to generalize, or to imply that numerous organizations are poorly managed or led, I can say this: More frequently than I had ever imagined, people ‘in the middle’ of corporate entities find fault with the cultures or the work environments of their organizations. They make statements such as: “Things could be a lot better here, or |”Teams don’t really work well together”, or “We don’t communicate like we should”, or “Our culture is one of mediocrity”.
While I empathize with the frustrations of these individuals, and I must admit that I have felt some of them myself when I was an employee in large systems, what I try to do when I teach or coach these people is encourage a change of mindset.
It often comes down to this: Powerlessness is a self-fulfilling story. In other words, in any large system, as soon as we begin to feel powerless, we effectively render ourselves powerless. When I work with middle managers, I try to show them that they have more influence than they think.
To me, part of the leadership mindset is to learn to see possibilities where others see only limitations. Within our sphere of influence and our sphere of ambition, we have the power (and the responsibility) to co-create our context.
More than we realize, we can influence our context with our thoughts and our actions. Most of the time, we tend to think that our work environment, our context, is something that is just ‘there’, and we accept it as ‘part of the job’.
The difference with true leaders (like Rosa Parks, Gandhi, or Tim Bilodeau) is that they do not accept things the way they are. They take stands for what they believe. They decide to master the context, and to change it.
In the case of middle managers, rather than feel stuck, we should realize that leadership often happens in small ways that bring about small, positive changes. If you are not happy about something in your work environment, and if you care enough to take a stand, don’t be afraid to express yourself.
Virtually every day, I find and listen to stories from workers who overcome fear and express their feelings about a workplace issue, about something they would like to change. Most often, they find that others in the group agree with them, support them, and commend them for having the courage to speak out.
So, as a middle manager, when you decide to take some mastery of your context, to try to change something in the immediate world around you, remember to keep your tone positive, and to speak with the emotion of someone who truly cares. In many cases, you will be surprised at the effect you can have.