Back in February (doesn’t that seem like a lifetime ago?) I blogged about Leaders are Team Players and discussed the idea of leading from the middle. It seems like a contradiction in terms. How can you lead from the middle? The leader is the one in charge, the one in front. The reality is you can lead from anywhere, and many do. It’s about how you are, how you present yourself, and how you interact with the people around you.
If you think only the person heading things up is the leader, you are focusing on a title not on actions. If the person who holds the title does not exhibit strong leadership qualities one of two things will happen. Either what they are leading will not function well and will achieve little, or someone will step in to fill the vacuum. The person who does is leading from the middle.
For those of you new to leadership, it can be a good position from which to start. Those of you who are already leaders can sometimes more easily step in, but you will need to be mindful not to take charge. You don’t want to show up the official leader. That can sabotage your efforts.
You can practice leading from the middle when you are on a school or district level team, but the skill really comes into play when your principal is ineffective, incompetent, or uncertain. I have had administrators in the first two categories, and it was often hard work to steer them in the right direction. Mostly it was a matter of “sharing” an idea I had, stating it briefly, and proposing to handle the details while keeping them in the loop. It made them feel as though they were in charge, as if they were giving me permission to move forward. In reality, I had taken the lead.
These days with school opening plans being open-ended, subject to quick changes, and having the potential for causing harm, administrators at all levels are uncertain and insecure. If they don’t have strong leadership qualities, knowing how to get a broad selection of advice and information, and understanding the needs of the people they lead, they are apt to freeze in indecision or push forward regardless of how new information changes the picture. That can put you in a difficult situation. Lolly Daskal, author of The Leadership Gap, explains The Best Way to Deal with an Insecure Leader, offering these six suggestions:
Don’t take their lack of confidence as a reflection on yourself – Insecure leaders blame others. They don’t take responsibility and are quick to lash out. Listen instead to what has set them off. What are they worried about? How can you help mitigate the situation? By staying calm, you will help your principal to relax and, hopefully, refocus so that purposeful action can be taken. When you can see what they fear, you can better offer solutions.
Praise their strengths – This can be difficult because when you are annoyed and frustrated, you don’t see any strengths. But everyone has them. Even if it’s a small thing, find a positive. It has to be honest. You don’t want to be an apple polisher or over do it. Just keep looking for good qualities that you can bring to your administrator. It bolsters their ego which is obviously damaged at this point and helps them move forward in a good direction.
Don’t allow comparisons – This is an interesting one. Whenever we compare ourselves to others, we invariably come out second. We always see what someone else is doing better than we are. Your administrator may be doing this as well. Don’t exacerbate the issue. The last thing you want to do is compare how another principal has handled a similar situation. Just make the suggestion — without attribution.
Pinpoint productive ways to handle frustration – Dealing with a poor administrator will cause you to become frustrated. Don’t let them drag you down. I once had a principal who was a bully and not very competent. I would come home almost daily complaining about him. By doing this, not only had I let him affect my workday, I had allowed him to spoil by personal time. After my husband pointed it out, I stopped discussing him at home. Make time to do the things you like. Do any routines that calm you and put you in a better place. In addition, find support from other librarians – as great as your partner may be, s/he does not understand your situation the way others in the field will. Let your Professional Learning Network (PLN) bolster you and be a place where you can let off steam. You will be ready for your principal in the morning – and your family at the end of the day.
Link your success to your leader’s – At first glance this seems almost impossible, but it’s something I have recommended before. Usually, I suggest you identify your principal’s vision and goals. With an insecure leader this might not be obvious. Instead, figure out what would make them feel successful. Who do they need to show they are doing well? How can they do that? Help them get there, using the library program. They may never say it, but they will then regard you as indispensable to them. This is a key part of leading from the middle.
Lead from within – And also from “without.” Lead everywhere. It doesn’t matter what your title is or what situation you are in. A leader is what and who you are. The more confident you are in your abilities and what you bring to the student, teachers and administration, the more obvious it becomes to other that you are a leader.
For your efforts, you will improve your relationship with your principal and through that relationship create a better working environment for everyone. You will also improve your leadership skills. That’s something we all need right now.