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What it takes a middle manager to be an effective leader is the right behaviour September 8, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Leadership, Management.

Gurus and guru wannabes have made the topic of leadership a vastly profitable speaking circus supported by voluminous publications.

The expansive literature on leadership devotes a large amount of space to analysing the characteristics, qualities and styles of successful senior executives.

Unfortunately, this analysis is woefully irrelevant, and delivers little practical value, to middle management.

Middle managers get things done and are the foundation of the success of an organisation.  Yet they often feel helpless as the “sandwiched class” between senior executives who have the power to issue orders, and junior staff who have the luxury of merely taking them.

In a blog post entitled “We’ve Got Leaders. What we need is leadership.” author Wally Bock claims that we have leaders in abundance, but “What we need is good leadership.”

“If you are responsible for the performance of a group you are leader, because you have followers,” he continues, “You can lead well, or you can lead poorly, but lead you do.”

Let’s not forget that being a leader is merely a position.  Often you are put in that position willy nilly; sometimes you may choose to be there.

Leadership, on the other hand, involves certain types of behaviour.

Let me try and translate leadership literature aimed at senior executives into some practical pointers for middle managers on becoming effective leaders:

Developing a vision – this usually means having a clear idea of what outcome you wish to see and being able to describe it accurately.  The outcome doesn’t have to be grand.  In fact, sometimes the outcome can be simply the absence of a problem.

Inspiring others – this means talking to anyone in your circle of influence, including your boss, peers and subordinates about the outcome that you would so much like to see and convincing them that it’s a desirable cause to fight for.

Instituting change – this means that you should not be happy with how things have always been done or thought about; in fact, you should develop the habit of asking why things can’t be done or approached another way.

Setting goals – this means that you should always have an objective in mind for any activity you undertake, and you should repeatedly tell others what this is and how far you are from it.

Setting examples – your behaviour as a leader is always under scrutiny, and often imitated by others.  It also carries symbolic value.  Behave only in a way that you are comfortable for others to imitate, and that carries the right message.  Always hold yourself to higher standards than anyone else.

Thinking strategically – this means recognising that there are many ways to skin a cat; thinking about what choices you have, and what reasons and information on which you should make a choice.  When you decide to do one thing, you are also deciding not to do other things.  You need to help others understand and buy into your choice.

Taking charge – people naturally look to leaders for decisions.  Many are afraid of doing the wrong thing and taking the blame for it.  In the face of uncertainty, you need to have the courage to take action and bear the consequences.

Giving praise and support – everyone wants to be told that he or she is doing a good job, especially when the going gets tough.  In the face of adversity, you need to rise above your own emotional reactions and help others overcome their fears and doubts.

Being helpful – the process of change, and the road towards an ambitious goal, is full of difficulties.  Not everyone is up to the task.  Never be too busy to lend a helping hand.  It’s not about you, it’s about them.

The above is clearly not an exhaustive list, nor is any of the items easy.  Besides, getting things right takes a great deal of practice.  I’m sure you can think of many other types of behaviour that help a middle manager become an effective leader.  Do let me know what else you can think of.



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2. Terry Thomas - October 6, 2010

Thank you for compiling these guidelines that I think will help my personal as well professional life. I especially like the comment “sometimes the outcome can be simply the absence of a problem”. Even though I tried to incorporate these ideals into my life, what I feel like I lost along the way was the joy in my daily living. Since you asked what I think to add to the list it would be to have passion along with vision. Have fun on the journey!

Alan Yu - October 6, 2010

Dear Terry,

Yes, passion is indeed important, although according to Siddhartha Herdegen, you don’t need passion to be successful: http://bit.ly/abAznb.

Good luck with your journey, and thanks for the comment.


Alan Yu

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