Let’s set aside the boring debate about managers vs. leaders for a moment and take a look at daily life for most managers in organizations.
The reality is that middle managers provide real leadership all the time.
Although some middle managers think their job is to manage people, in my post 15 Things Leaders Can Manage (and One They Can’t), I explained how it’s not possible to manage people. We can manage processes and projects. And if we do it well, people will manage themselves.
But there is more to leadership than managing projects and coaching your team to deliver on their objectives.
Leadership involves making sure projects and objectives make sense, that they support where the company is going, and that they are aligned with objectives of other work groups.
Leadership requires reaching across reporting lines and having conversations about the bigger picture, what makes sense, and what might be needed to ensure success for the enterprise, not just the project.
Leadership requires broad thinking and considering interconnections. It requires a focus on the forest as well as the trees.
Middle managers are perfectly capable of doing all this, and in fact many do!
What about your boss?
You might say that’s all well and good when your boss supports you. But what if your boss is not a good leader? What if you have done your best to establish good communications with your boss, and it just doesn’t work?
Chances are you will come up against this at some point in your career. Most of us have.
This is the point where many managers give up, deciding they can’t provide leadership if their boss doesn’t.
Granted, it’s frustrating and it’s hard to be a good manager when your boss isn’t. But it’s not impossible.
Circle your wagons. Focus on building a strong team. Buffer your team as much as you can from assaults from on high. It might mean taking the heat for your team at times so they are not distracted and can focus on their work.
But when you focus your energies on what you can accomplish within your own circle of influence, you don’t need to wait to provide leadership.
Pushing too much outside your own sphere of influence can be risky business in some company cultures. So be smart. You need to understand the culture, work within your circle of influence, and yet don’t let your team become isolated. Focus your energies within your sphere of influence but keep your awareness expanded.
9 Ways Middle Managers Provide Leadership
Providing leadership as a middle manager requires an expanded understanding of your role and a willingness to take the risk to think and act more broadly.
1. Don’t be simply a mouthpiece for pushing the company agenda. If you agree with the agenda, share your views on what is important. If you hear challenging views, make sure you really understand them before trying to convince others they’re wrong.
2. Support your direct reports so they can accomplish their work. Do the management stuff well.
3. Have discussions with your direct reports about the bigger picture and how their work fits. Get their input on what is needed for improvement or change. Be willing to change your views if they make sense. Be willing to implement changes that are within your realm of authority, and be willing to go to bat for your team when necessary.
4. Ask questions that provoke big picture thinking like, “How will that help us get where we want to go?” and “If we decide to do this, what are the things we need to consider and take into account?”
5. Understand your direct reports’ career goals and provide opportunity for them to develop their skills and competencies.
6. Help your team become a high performance team by shifting the focus and flow of energy on your team.
7. Build relationships with your peers and people in other departments. Understand their perspective.
8. Be willing to let go of control. The best way to ensure success is to allow other to help shape the direction and plans. Remind people of where you’re going and ask big picture questions to provoke their thinking, but attempting to control everything is a waste of your energy and demoralizing to your team.
9. Perhaps the most powerful way you provide leadership is by developing leadership capability in others. You don’t need to have all the answers. Look for opportunities to support other’s leadership efforts. And as your team develops into a high performance team, you will need to step out of their way so they can fly.
Photo credit: Bigstock/pritsadee How Middle Managers Provide Leadership