What is a good Leader in middle management?


I was debating for a while whether I should write something about leadership. There is a plethora of work available on the Internet about leadership.

I did not want to add to it as I am not an expert. But I felt a strong compulsion to write about the kind of Leader/Manager I want to become.

Most of the material (lectures, videos and articles) out there are about the leadership qualities that one should aspire for. They are qualities that we expect in our CEOs. CIOs, CFOs, CTOs etc. But you and I work on a much lower level in the organization. To us, our Line Manager represents a mid-level Leader (middle management). If you have a team of your own who report to you, you are their leader.

So we need to understand what a leader looks like in middle management.

According to Simon Sinek, leader is someone who has followers. They follow that person to battlefield (in his US Army example) and get inspired. Please listen to this short video where Simon talks about what a leader is.

In this post,

  • I am not talking about the qualities of a leader (for example a four star General) who has to inspire and lead the team to battle.
  • I am not talking about putting your life on the line to save your comrade in the battlefield because he/she would have done the same.
  • I am not talking about leadership qualities where you let your team eat first in the cafeteria and only then you eat yourself.
  • I am not talking about leadership qualities where you decide not to make employees redundant, rather ask them to take a pay cut because you are after long term loyalty instead of short term profitability.
  • I am not talking about leaders who give rousing speeches to make the staff believe in the future that the leader paints in front of them

Or maybe I should!

That is what Simon Sinek’s version of a leader is. Please listen to this video where Simon explains how good leaders can make you feel safe.

On a day to day basis, we do not deal with these leaders. You are lucky if you are in that extended leadership group, having regular meeting with CEO/CIO/CTO/CFO etc.

On a day to day basis, we deal with our Line Managers or portfolio/section Directors. To us, they are the leaders who are expected to inspire us and translate the message from CEO/CIO/CFO/CTO into plain language.

Let me ask you few questions. Have you ever encountered below?

  • Had a Line Manager who was unable to articulate the message from CEO/CIO/CTO/CFO? So you did not know why the organization was going through a restructure when nothing was broken!
  • Had a Line Manager you could see through and knew that all their message was pure bullshit?
  • Had a Line Manager who had no filter at all and was passing message from senior management verbatim? For example, in a top tier company in Sydney, a senior executive had instructed the staff to work hard and stay back after hours to get more work done. The exact words were “It is our way or the highway. If you are unable to stay back and work after hours for free, I would encourage you to look elsewhere for job opportunity.” The executive was given the task to pass the message to the staff by his Manager. Do you think it inspired the team to work harder?
  • Had a LIne Manager who took credit for your work because you did not have access to senior management?
  • Had a Line Manager who was a micromanager and would throw you under the bus when things get dire?
  • Had a Line Manager who sucked up to senior management to safeguard their own position instead of providing honest opinion that benefited the company?
  • Had a Line Manager who stopped you from growing in your career because they viewed you as a threat?
  • Had a Line Manager you undermined you to prevent you from moving up in your career because they felt threatened?

If the answer to any of the above is a Yes, then I would say your Line Manager is NOT a leader.

Based on my experience in both private and public organization, I would say a Manager in middle-management need the following leadership qualities:

  • Be able inspire the staff. This shows up over and over again in Simon Sinek’s videos and speeches. The Manager paints a picture that the staff can believe in. They come to work, inspired by the speech.
  • Filter messages from senior management to staff. Line Manager knows and understands the pulse of the team. For example, the company is considering a restructure or outsourcing some part of the service. Until something concrete is in place, Line Manager should not create panic among the staff.
  • Allow direct reports (staff that report to the Line Manager) to grow. You can only learn from your mistakes. A true leader allows their direct reports room to grow and at times even fail. Although micro-management has its benefit, it can also stymie the development of a staff and prevent them from thinking on their own.
  • Promote the direct reports to senior management and recognize their work and contribution.
  • Listen to direct reports and not always toe the company line if there are genuine issues to be addressed. I have experienced situations where CEO of a company did not want to hear bad news about operational issues. However a true leader/Manager would highlight the issues to CEO and other senior management as well as propose recommendations.

Unfortunately, human beings are frail and we want economic security. We do not want to do things that may jeopardise our jobs. This may prevent a Line Manager from speaking out in front of the senior executives.

Simon Sinek in his video “Why good leaders make you feel safe” gave an example where he witnessed at a US airport how an immigration officer was berating a passenger for breaking a queue. When Simon asked that officer why they were treating that passenger so poorly from breaking a simple passenger line, the officer replied that they may lose their job if they do not follow orders.

So providing an environment where you can inspire your staff and they feel valued and safe is the quality that a Line Manager should have.


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