How You Can Lead From the Middle

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May 20, 2019

Good leadership consists of showing average people how to do the work of superior people.” – John D. Rockefeller, American business magnate.

Average gets a bad rap among productivity gurus. No one really wants to admit that most people are by definition, well, average. They are the middle-of-the-pack, hardworking employees who do the majority of the work in the corporate environment. Many are happy with their positions, happy with their pay, happy with the level of effort they must put in to maintain their jobs. They’re the backbone of business. We need people who come to work, do their jobs, and go home.

I’m not a huge fan of average, mostly because, as Rockefeller points out in the above quote, “average” people can learn to perform magnificently without killing themselves. Burnout, in my eyes, hurts worse than mediocrity; at least the mediocre aren’t totally wrecked. But average doesn’t mean mediocre. There’s nothing wrong with average, if you don’t mind it.

As much impact as super-efficient workers have, they’re rare. Organizations would accomplish very little if they depended entirely on their top 1%, while ignoring their conventional, solid middle. While I believe in always reaching for your full potential, unlike some, I don’t push workers to become “SuperCompetent,” there’s no reason you can’t leverage your knowledge and authority to lead from the middle. How would this work?

Act modest, even if you must fake it — As Dale Carnegie once wrote, “The surest way to antagonize an audience is to indicate that you consider yourself to be above them.” It doesn’t matter if you know you do something better than everyone else, don’t bring it up unnecessarily. Just do it. Circumstances may sometimes require you to point out your superior ability; but when you do bring up your strengths, don’t just brag. Narcissism and vanity won’t help you wield any reins of power you may get your hands on.

Consistently improve yourself — This should go without saying, but then, most things that “should go without saying” need to be said loudly and often. People have short memories. So, “never stop never stopping,” to use the amusing title of a recent movie. Find ways to improve your work processes, writing ability, and performance. Take classes, attend workshops and conferences, and brush up on, well, everything. It will all improve your productivity and leadership ability.  

Increase your communication skills — In addition to learning how to speak and write in a clear, unambiguous way, study the basics of non-verbal communication. Keep an eye on body language and expression; ask for honest feedback and provide it when asked; stop over-communicating; and give the person you’re communicating with the gift of your full attention.

Be a wingman — If you don’t lead the pack but want to contribute your knowledge and experience, you don’t have to present it like a backseat driver. Instead, serve as your leader’s wingman. In this critical supporting role, you communicate tightly with your team lead, keep an eye out for potential problems and obstacles, and smooth the way. This isn’t about sucking up. It’s about aiding the team leader as she or he leads the team into the future, supporting the leader and the team in general. You don’t have to agree with everything leaders do, so discuss options with them in a private setting. Your goal: to keep everyone afloat.

Contribute from the sides

Just because you’re not a part of management doesn’t mean you can’t contribute leadership to the team, especially if you’re highly experienced. Whether you just haven’t made it to the top yet or don’t want to try, you can still influence your team’s course and the decisions that decide it. Don’t hide your light under a bushel just because you don’t feel it’s your place to influence decision-making. Your team leader depends on you and your co-workers to help guide the team’s direction.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.