Embrace leading from the middle

In the spring of my sophomore year of high school, I was the high jumper on our track team. If you saw me, you’d never say, “Oh she must be a high jumper,” but it was a small rural school and we worked with what we had. During a memorable meet, one of the sprinters was out with an injury. We were a small team so when we had injuries, we often had to step up to compete in other events. The coach asked me that day to replace the injured player as the third leg runner on the 440-meter relay team.

It was a great opportunity for a sophomore to get to run with the varsity team. I remember my mindset at the time was: at least I am only one of the middle runners, so I don’t have a lot of pressure to perform well because the important roles on the relay team are the first leg (lead) runner and the anchor (fourth) runner. Maybe because of that mindset, I remember I started to slow my pace slightly as I rounded the third turn, until I heard the coach yelling at me, “Keep up your pace! The team is counting on you!” I poured the speed back on and handed off the baton to the anchor. We ended up winning the race and the anchor hugged me and thanked me for helping make her job a little easier by running a good third leg. I was euphoric that I had helped the relay team win the race, even from my middle position.

Being medium doesn’t mean playing small!

Being in the middle or “medium” as I call it has been a theme in my life. I am medium-sized, medium-height and grew up in the mid-West. Even though there were many areas of my life where I exceled and was anything but medium (first chair clarinet in concert band, soloist in choir, drum major in marching band, editor of the yearbook, squad leader in the military, etc.) I always thought of myself as medium – in the middle of the pack. But that didn’t mean that I “phoned it in.”

Thinking of myself as “medium” didn’t stop me from wanting to do anything I did to the best of my abilities. One of my favorite leaders, Walt Disney, is quoted as saying, “Whatever you are, be a good one.” I have always tried to follow that advice.

During grad school, I mentioned to one of my classmates that I didn’t see myself as driven or wanting to climb the corporate ladder, even though I had been told that others described me that way, and I told her that I just see myself as medium and always wanting to do a good job. She laughed at that description and said that is not how others viewed me. They saw me as a leader and someone who was setting direction and helping people to achieve it. After that, she nick-named me “Medium.” When I would share some accomplishment, she would say sarcastically, “Right, because you’re so medium.”


Everyone brings something to the table.

Every job, every role in an organization is important to the success of the overall organization. A role may show up in the middle of a team or the middle of an organization chart, but how the person in that role shows up, their attitude, and how they do their job matters. Leaders can be at any organizational level. A leader is someone who inspires others to go where they would not go on their own and to accomplish things they would not accomplish left to their own devices.

As a leader, you are always “on,” and others are listening to your words and watching your actions. It is important to not only bring your best to each role you fill but to understand the team you are leading and what each of them and their job role contributes to the organization. Excellent leaders set a good example by valuing everyone’s contribution.

When transitioning into a new leadership role I always study the organization first to understand where it is now. Our Seasoned Leader David Spong echoed this advice in his Lessons in Leadership column “Be the Leader Who Builds on and Improves,” when he talks about the phenomenon of “benign neglect.” Instead, excellent leaders strive to and understand the organization they are leading first. I always met with the team members collectively and individually and listened to what they had to say about the organization, what was working, what wasn’t, and what they would change if they were in my position. I also shared with them who I am, my background, and expectations.

One of the key expectations I shared was: “Everyone brings something special to the team – recognize that and optimize that contribution.” This expectation was sometimes met with skepticism. When that happened, I asked the skeptic to find something good that each team member (including themselves) brings to the table. By having them identify something good that each person brings to the team they were then more open to working together.


When you find yourself in the middle

Wherever we find ourselves during our lives we can show up every day and perform to the best of our ability. We can live each day in a way we can be proud of and if we stumble, we get back up, dust ourselves off, and keep going. No one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. We can learn from those mistakes and get better with every lesson we learn.

Even if you find yourself in the middle, view every role that you are in, especially leadership positions, as an opportunity to bring the very best of you and contribute to the success of the whole.  


Three simple steps you can use to perform well wherever you find yourself:

1.    EARN your position: Whether you sought out your current position or just found yourself there, bring your best attitude and performance to the job each day.

2.    OWN your position: Treat your job as if you owned it, be responsible for understanding all aspects of the job and considering how performance could be improved or how the job could be done better than it is currently.

3.    GROW in your position: Never stop being curious and learning. Continually investing in yourself and your growth will pay off in multiple ways. Pretty soon you’ll find yourself being sought out for other opportunities.


Love yourself.

While you are earning, owning, and growing in each role, you need to love yourself for who you are. Everyone brings something special to whatever role they are in. Know who you are and what you contribute and love yourself. Be proud of what you contribute. I am grateful for every role I have had in my life, large, small, or medium. I love that I am able to contribute in my unique ways to the success of the whole...even while embracing being medium!

Debbie Collard has 30+ years of leadership experience. She served on the National Baldrige Foundation Board of Directors for 15 years, including as the first female Chair of the Board. She is an iPEC- and ICF-Certified Professional Coach and co-author of The Making of a World- Class Organization, a practical guide for leaders to engage employees and increase profitability. debbiecollard.com

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