When we were kids we used to play a game, ‘Piggy in the Middle’. Usually the youngest or least adept member of the group got the dubious privilege of taking up position between two others, who threw a ball between them. Piggy’s task was to intercept and so hopefully replace one of the throwers. Less accomplished piggies run backwards and forwards between the two throwers, aimlessly and increasingly desperately trying to be released from their predicament.
My childhood memory reminds me of the circumstances I’ve heard many middle leaders describe. They see themselves as ‘the meat in the sandwich’; akin to piggy, but many of them bacon-bits with no prospect of release. They feel as though they’re moving backwards and forwards between competing interests and groups, trying to satisfy seemingly incompatible wants and needs.
Middle leaders are conscious of the expectations placed on them from one side (we won’t say the bottom), where staff expect them to represent their views and give them access into organisational direction or policy. At the same time they are conscious of the other side (we won’t say the top), where senior leaders expect them to execute and represent their directions (or directives) and policies. They are aware they may well receive criticism from both sides.
All circumstances are distinct and there can be no one, neat answer for middle leaders confronting this dilemma. But just for a moment to indulge in simplistic thinking and draw on my piggy days, I recall it was about taking up and holding a good position, head steady, staying light on your feet, eyes on the ball, using peripheral vision to keep sight of both throwers, anticipating the right moment to make a decision, committing fully when deciding to go for it and then rebalancing for the next opportunity – and staying composed throughout.
Middle leaders have an important role to play in organisations. In a healthy organisational culture and possessed of the appropriate skills, they can be instrumental in building and maintaining quality, initiating and driving innovation and identifying and achieving improvements. The topic of effective middle leadership is one needing far greater (and rather more serious than given here) attention – for the sake of senior and middle leaders themselves and for those they serve.
Oh, and one final childhood rule – when you got to intercept and be a thrower, it wasn’t fair to be mean to the new piggy and try to make the task impossible!