The Great Challenge for middle managers

How to inspire, motivate, strategise and lead your team, when you are still expected to get the 'manager' things done.

One of the biggest challenges facing high achieving managers when get promoted to their first leadership position, is that they often go into that role with great intentions, but little awareness as to the difference between leadership and management, or how to bridge that gap.

In essence, management is about getting things done efficiently, while leadership is about getting the right things done, while inspiring and empowering your people.

I like how Dr Stephen Covey worded it:

“Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”

Covey also talks about leadership as being opportunity-oriented, while he sees management as problem-oriented.

So, how do you handle that duality as a middle leader, when you are still charged with getting the things done, while leading, inspiring and empowering your team?

To move into a leadership capacity, you'll need to overcome some of your default patterns and embrace a new framework of beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Let go of needing to do it 'right' or perfectly: it can take a whole career to master leadership, and each day can bring a new challenge which means new growth.

Here's my starting point for growth for all new leaders:

1) Embrace failure. Give yourself the grace to grow without judgment - especially self-judgment! Successful leaders view failure as attempts in learning (actually, First Attempts In Learning - or FAILs - are an expected part of growth and innovation).

You need to have the courage to be willing to fail, in order to grow into your authentic leadership style and capabilities, and to make it safe for others to do the same.

2) Develop your self-awareness. This is not just about your strengths and weaknesses, but around your beliefs, attitudes and blind spots. Some of those will be limiting and others empowering, so you need to take the time to get to know them, and then to spot them when they crop up, so that you are in a position of choice.

It's essential to understand this because our beliefs, attitudes and biases lead directly to our automatic behaviours and actions, unless they are intercepted and a conscious choice made.

3) Identify your values. When we honour our values, we lean into fulfilment, motivation and find it easy to inspire others. When we (or others) don't honour our values, it can create discord, stress and even conflict. 

Knowing your values can help you to notice, and anticipate, when you are being 'triggered' and your survival brain is jumping to a response. When you can spot that, you can be at choice as to whether that's how your more considered, rational brain would respond.

Understanding the importance of values can also help you to identify the values of your team members, in order to get the best from them and for them, too.

4) Get intentional about the impact you want to have. When things are calm, it might be easy to lean into what the 'right' thing looks like to you. 

But when you're in the eye of the storm, knowing your North Star and what you stand for will help you lean into what success looks like, and guide you through in the most effective, efficient, aligned and clear way possible.

5) Change your focus. In management, your focus will often be on the next step; lining things up for success and mitigating risk. 

In leadership, your focal point needs to be on the whole staircase, and the bigger vision and strategy to support that. 

If you wear the hats for both roles, then remember to try both on for the different perspectives.

6) Develop your communication skills. Most leaders I work with pride themselves on being good listeners and communicators... until we start looking at what impactful listening and questions as a leader really look and feel like.

This is an area where you can make small changes that create huge shifts in your leadership style and effectiveness. If you want to experience a taste of what's possible, hold off on giving your usual advice in your next 1:1 meeting and instead ask a Powerful Question. Then keep quiet as the response unfolds. (If you need help with PQs, I've got a Quick Start guide for you, here.)

7) Make curiosity your number one quality. In leadership, you need to let go of snap judgments and having all the answers. That's not to say your vast experience has no value; just that you need to have the confidence to know that your self-worth and value are not based on you being the 'sage on the stage' at all times.

Your job now is to grow your people, and in order to do that (wherever circumstances allow) you need to be willing to let go of your way being the 'right way', and instead be open and curious about what you don't know yet; about other perspectives and insights, and what else is possible.

This is the coach approach to leadership. It not only encourages innovation in others; in time you build the confidence of your people to trust their own evaluation skills, judgement and capabilities. The ultimate goal of this is to empower them to have the agency and autonomy to act on their own!

8) Celebrate. High achievers often skip over the celebrating, but it's important for two big reasons:

  • Most growth and learning is done through experience and reflection;
  • It builds a sense of achievement every step of the way instead of delaying it for an event that might never happen; and
  • Confidence grows with evidence.

A great way to start your reflection and celebration practise is to block your last 10 minutes out in your week, and ask yourself:

  • "How did I show up as a leader this week?"
  • "What about that was leadership?"
  • "How did that make me feel?"
  • (You might like to set yourself up for ongoing success by also asking: "What are my opportunities to show up as a leader next week?")

Enjoy! I'd love to know how you get on with these!