Middle Leadership

John Kotter has focused much of his career on distinguishing between leadership and management. He wrote a terrific piece for HBR in January that talked about how people are still using the two terms interchangeably. If people do differentiate between leaders and managers, it tends to be along hierarchical lines: leaders are the folks at the top and managers are those in the middle. There is a reason why the term “middle leadership” is not popular. But organizations should have middle leaders and lower leaders too. For an organization to succeed, they need leaders throughout.

To go back to Kotter’s helpful definitions: managers are people who manage the processes that keep an organization running well. They plan and budget. They decide how to assign the resources at their disposal. They execute the plan, monitor the progress and put controls in place to make sure that risks are minimized. Then they analyze the results. Leaders are radically different. Whereas managers focus on the past (when budgeting one looks at past performance) and the present, leaders are future-focused. Whereas managers focus on creating plans to execute a company’s current strategy, leaders try to look into the future to see if and how that strategy needs to shift to stay competitive. Leaders need to create a vision of the future and then be able to communicate that vision to everyone within the organization. And they must motivate and inspire people to buy in to that vision. Without change, organizations eventually die. Leaders are the people who make necessary change happen.

The people at the top of an organization must possess solid leadership skills if the organization is to succeed over the long run. And yes, leadership is a set of skills that can be learned, not simply personal charisma. But leadership skills should also be valued outside of the C-suite. Change is hard. People don’t generally like it. If the only driver of change is someone at the very top who makes 100 times the salary of the average employee, it will be hard to get everyone on board. If there are leaders at all levels of the organization who have bought into the vision and can encourage their teams to buy into it too, change is much less painful and more likely to stick.

In our next post, we will talk about some ways to encourage a culture of leadership in your organization.

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