The 360° Leader: Myths about Leading from the Middle
By Dr. John C. Maxwell
In all my years of leadership teaching and consulting, I have never observed an organization with too many leaders. Organizations can never have enough! However, most companies narrow their vision to a limited number of leadership positions, and when hiring leaders, they think only in terms of filling the top spots.
Organizations rise and fall on the merit of their leadership—at every level. Successful organizations cannot afford to wait until someone gets “to the top” to start leading. They need 360° leaders now. Why? Because leaders generate value!
Over the years, a set of common myths has hindered leaders in the middle of an organization. On account of these myths, would-be leaders have failed to grasp the extent of their potential influence. In this edition of Leadership Wired, I’d like to identify these myths and look at the qualities engendered by leaders who make an impact from the middle of the pack.
MYTHS ABOUT LEADING FROM THE MIDDLE
The Position Myth – “I can’t lead if I am not at the top.”
If I had to identify the number one misconception people have about leadership, it would be the belief that leadership comes simply from having a position or title. When we conceptualize leadership in our minds, we tend to picture the names atop the organizational chart. When asked to name a leader, most of us would list presidents, CEO’s, or general managers. We erroneously think leadership is position, when in reality, leadership is influence.
The Destination Myth – “When I get to the top, then I’ll learn to lead.”
Human nature exaggerates yesterday, overestimates tomorrow, and underestimates today. Leading today prepares a leader for more and greater responsibility tomorrow. If a leader doesn’t try out leadership skills and decision-making processes when the risks are low, they’re likely to get into trouble at higher levels when the cost of mistakes is higher and the exposure is greater.
The Influence Myth – “If I were on top, then people would automatically follow me.”
People who have no leadership experience tend to overemphasize the importance of a leadership title. A person may be appointed to a position, but he or she must earn the right to lead. The position doesn’t make the leader; the leader makes the position.
The Inexperience Myth – “When I get to the top, I’ll be in control.”
A bold young leader may become impatient when eyeing areas for improvement within the organization: “If I were in charge, we wouldn’t have done this, and we would have done that. Things would be different around here if I were the boss.” The desire to improve and the self-confidence to make changes are admirable leadership qualities. However, without real-life experience, a young leader is likely to overestimate the amount of control held by leaders at the top. The higher you go—and the larger the organization—the more you realize the complex mix of variables that control the organization.
The Freedom Myth – “When I get to the top, I’ll no longer be limited.”
Climbing the ranks of leadership does not earn the leader a ticket to freedom. Rights decrease and responsibilities grow as you ascend the corporate ladder. Leadership at the highest levels is accompanied by a daunting set of challenges.
The Potential Myth – “I can’t reach my potential if I’m not the top leader.”
In reality, most people will never be the top leader in an organization. They will spend their careers somewhere in the middle. Strive to reach the top of your game, not the top of the organization.
The All-or-Nothing Myth – “If I can’t get to the top, then I won’t try to lead.”
People who are motivated by advancement may be tempted to abandon their influence when they hit a barrier to a bigger promotion. These people look at an organization, recognize they will not be able to make it to the top, and give up. Their attitude is, “If I can’t be the captain of the team, then I’ll take my ball and go home.”
Defining Qualities of a 360° Leader
Adaptability – Quickly adjusts to change.
Leaders in the middle may not be the first to know, but they are often the ones in charge of implementation. Adaptable managers in the middle are willing to embrace a change operationally even if they are not yet ready to do so emotionally.
Discernment – Understands the real issues.
Good leaders cut through the clutter to see the real issues. A smart person believes only half of what he hears, but a truly smart person knows which half to believe.
Security – Finds identity in self, not position.
Effective 360° leaders are secure enough in who they are to not worry about where they are. Instead of focusing on reaching a position, they focus on reaching their potential.
Service – Gains fulfillment in serving everyone.
A servant leader serves the mission and leads by serving those on mission with him or her. The true measure of leaders is not the number of people who serve them but the number of people they serve.
Resourcefulness – Finds creative ways to make things happen.
Creativity is the joy of not knowing it all. We seldom, if ever, have all the answers, but we always have the imagination to create solutions to our problems.
Maturity – Puts the team before self.
Nobody who possesses an unrelenting me-first attitude is able to develop much influence with others. A mature leader sees beyond his or her personal vantage point and has the courage to make sacrifices which advance the team. Communication – Links to all levels of the organization.
We often think of communication in organizations as being primarily top-down. Leaders at the top cast vision, set direction, reward progress, etc. However, good communication is a 360-degree proposition. In fact, oftentimes the most critical communication comes from leaders identifying problems or solutions at the ground level and sending them up the chain of command.
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