Graphic: Rabbit Holes

Middle Child Leadership & Leading From the Middle

When it comes to Leadership, I have thoughts

It’s been interesting times on LinkedIn lately. For reasons known only to the algorithm, my feed has switched directions. Blessedly reduced are posts from self-proclaimed thought-leaders that lean heavily on the prosperity-gospel, manifest-your-destiny, id-focused approach that creates sociopaths instead of strong teams. Now, however, I’m getting a load of “Servant Leadership” posts that channel charity gospel into team building. The weird thing is that more than a few of these “Servant Leaders” describe strategies that use a caring attitude as a way to get what you want personally. Seems like the sociopaths just found a new way to get stuff done.

And so there’s something I have to just get out of my system. TLDR: I’m sick of “thought leaders” trying to lead my thoughts. Thanks, but Aretha already taught me to think. And, when it comes to leadership, I have my own thoughts.


Too Many People Misunderstand Servant Leadership

I don’t claim to be an influencer (I also ain’t no psychiatrist, I ain’t no doctor with degrees.) And I like the idea of Servant Leadership in principle. One should aim for a higher purpose than selfish success. One specific thing Servant Leadership gets right is that team-based activities require success to be measured on team success, and that personal success comes via team success. This can get quickly derailed in at least two ways that I’ve seen:

  1. As Aretha might note, It doesn’t take too much IQ to see how quickly an emotionally-manipulative leader can motivate a team to success for which the leader then (oh so humbly) takes credit for creating. These Self-servant Leaders are just sociopaths in servant’s clothing.
  2. Others describe servant leadership in a way that implies leadership from the back; that the team provides the lead and the leader provides nurturing and support for the team. However, letting a team lead itself is a recipe for chaos, and unless your view of success revolves around masochism, I can’t advise it.

I know that I’m over-simplifying here, but surely there’s some way to find a balance between the callous, the manipulative, and the hapless.

A Middle Child Approach

Here’s my pitch, a good leader builds a team that self-organizes and gets to work for the joy of operating as a team for the good of the team. The leader works along with the team in an engaged-but-not-micro-managing way, building on brainstorms, giving productive feedback, advocating for good ideas, and empowering the team to do their best work.

I think of that type of leadership as Leading From the Middle, but that naming has been applied to solving a different set of issues*, so let’s call it Middle Child Leadership. While it might not work in every scenario, leading from the middle is a powerful way to get creative things done quickly.

What is Middle Child Leadership?

This isn’t rule-by-committee. There’s still someone in charge, but that person is a competent and confident head who collects smart, curious, and driven coaches and team members who are then empowered to do great work using their individual talents and skillsets.

Middle Child Leadership (MCL) team is created by an empathetic, goal-oriented but non-ego-driven leader who

  1. builds a team with strong contributors,
  2. defines objectives and provides guard rails,
  3. gets buy-in, and then
  4. gives each member of the team the freedom to do great work by being supportive and engaged without micromanaging.

Creative teams that have lead-from-the-middle leaders can be deployed to quickly ideate concepts, designs, and prototypes. They are naturally aligned to do creative work thanks to each member making contributions. In the end, the leader will have to sort through the results and then aim the team at the most productive paths, but that leader will have a wider range of options than the just-give-me-what-I-want guy and more clearly thought out concepts than the give-the-monkeys-typewriters type. Plus the team will be naturally energized to push forward as they see their contributions recognized, and promoted.

Carol Burnett is not a Doctor
Harvey Korman, Tim Conway, and Carol Burnett, leading from the middle, while physically stage left

Carol Burnett and Middle Child Leadership As a Style

There are plenty of examples in sports and business of successful lead-from-the-middle types. But—having cited Aretha Franklin, a strong, charismatic lead-from-way-out-front leader— I’d like to offer a female charismatic lead-from-the-middle-type that might not be as top of mind, in a vertical that might not have immediately popped: Carol Burnett, leader of one of the funniest comedic shows ever. Of herself, she famously said “I’m really not that funny in real life. But I am the best audience one could find. I love to laugh.” I hate to disagree with her, but she of the funniest people I have ever watched. Her show was mind-boggling chaos, presided over by an assured leader not afraid to let others shine. Burnett truly led from the middle. She didn’t feel a need to upstage her teammates, she built on their laughs and created additional opportunities for everyone to shine, making the viewer experience even better. And she did it well before leading-woman-in-comedy was a thing. Her team consistently brought laughs and joy by being a good team. I invite you to rewatch some of those old shows and particularly her interactions with the audience afterward; where she graciously and hilariously took questions (and did Tarzan calls). Her success was team-based, and she was happy to have her team shine. She paved the way for other lead-from-the-middle comedians, both women and men. Amy Poehler (whose MasterClass video is amazing btw) seems as good a modern example as any. She has no problem being in charge in a scene, but she also revels in the act of supporting another cast member in their own arc. She is clearly in the trenches with her teams, supporting them like fellow improv actors onstage: taking whatever comes and making it better.

I’ve Talked Too Long Already

If you’ve read this much, you know there’s more to say and if you know me at all, you’ll know I’ve got plenty more in the tank. However, Let’s take a break and come back to:
  • Why Middle Child Leadership is especially useful in creative teams? (taking a Writers Room approach)
  • Three Concepts Required for Successful MCL Teams that should keep your teams from being captured by the loudest opinions, manipulated by the self-servants, or descending into chaos.
In the meantime, if you want to talk to a middle child about leading from the middle, I’m looking forward to a collaboration.

* A note on Lead From the Middle™: There is a whole pre-established trademarked idea of Lead From the Middle as it applies to helping middle managers lead inside large companies. This is not what I’m talking about when I say Middle Child Leaders “lead from the middle.” My version of LFTM isn’t based on hierarchy but on mindset. So I’m changing my initial draft from “Lead from the Middle” to “Middle Child Leadership”; not just because as a middle child, I see the advantages that come from being in the middle, but also because—while I value the insights of Scott Mautz—I don’t want to confuse anyone looking for mid-tier manager success.

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