Transforming Leadership to Shape the Future

Strategic Leadership Institute

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Managing Change From The Middle

21/07/2011 13:11


As more and more organizations realize the importance of efficient future-orientated strategic leadership as opposed to mere management, we might get the impression that successful change management stand or falls solely on the abilities of the CEO, Executive Director or Company President. After all, where would their companies have been without the exceptional talents of Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, Jack Welch, Estee Lauder, Walt Disney, David Packard, Howard Schultz, Herbert Kelleher and Bill Gates?

Well, with some exceptions, perhaps not all that far from where they are right now. A friend of mine working for a prominent and successful company here in South Africa recently shared his frustrations about his Managing Director who seems like a textbook example of poor leadership. A real corporate dicatator there’s only one way and that’s HIS way, he frequently fails to communicate goals and vision, establishing a trust-based culture does not even feature on his agenda and he often goes back on his word or blame others when things go wrong. However, in spite of the top man’s obvious failures as a leader, the company has been performing exceptionally well for a number of years and even sailed through the economic recession with less damage than most.

The secret to this leadership anomaly: exceptional individuals lower down in the hierarchy who are able to “lead from the middle”. Contrary to what is often written and said about efficient organizational leadership, efficient middle managers have the ability to make a considerable impact and often play a much larger role in an organization’s success than what they get credit for. One of the reasons is the fact that they are often better positioned than anyone else in the organization’s structure to form a bridge between the dreams and ideals at the top and the often chaotic reality and challenges on ground level.1

Leadership change guru John Kotter once reported that fewer than 15 of more than 100 US companies he studied were successful in implementing change. Similarly, organizational expert Margaret Wheatley found that in the late 1990’s, surveys of high-ranking leaders found that two-thirds of their organizational change efforts failed. It has been suggested that these failures could be the result of companies following the traditional top-down or bottom-up approaches to change instead of accomplishing change from the middle of the organization.2 This notion is supported by the fact that in our rapidly changing world, time is of an essence and middle managers are better positioned to reach both ‘ends’ of the organizational structure than those in the boardroom or those on the floor. Factors such as globalization, increasing consumer power, mobility of talent, exponential technological innovation and changing employee expectations thus seems to have completely transformed the role of middle managers over the last decades.

The fact that middle managers are now expected to lead beyond the powers ascribed by their formal titles or position leaves them facing something of a leadership paradox. While this could leave some feeling despondent and frustrated, it also offers the opportunity to develop personal leadership skills. In a 2001 article in The Public Manager Matthew Fairholm pointed out that middle leaders have to rely on interpersonal relationships to realize the desired change. They therefore have to move beyond their positional power and learn to develop trust and personal power to influence others. Middle leaders aspiring to best make use of their position could consider the following tips:2

  • Seize every opportunity, formal and informal, to develop your leadership skills. They will be more beneficial than management theory when seeking to affect change from the middle.
  • Remember where you are and work from there – the middle has access to the top and the bottom. You can and should influence your superiors and those reporting to you.
  • Always keep the organization’s goals and visions in mind, but at the same time construct a simplified version that can be applied and shared in your direct sphere of influence.
  • Be bold yet delicate – learn when to speak out and when to use subtle influence to convince people. Develop and use your knowledge of the system and people to navigate through bureaucracy.
  • Focus on coalitions and relationships more than structures. Structure will emerge with the change.
  • Remember you might lack the authority but still have the responsibility.

Bottom line – the key to successful change management is not always on top, it is often INSIDE (unlike this favourite Cremora TV add from the 1980′s) . Not having the title or formal authority is no excuse for not changing the world – if you have the vision and the passion, then GO MAKE CHANGE HAPPEN!



1. Sethi, D. (1999). Leading from the middle - leadership by middle management. Human Resource Planning, 22, 3. p. 9.

2. Fairholm, M. R. (2001). Leading from the middle - the power and influence of middle managers. The Public Manager, Winter. pp. 17-21. 

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