You Are “They” – Owning Your Role as a Mid-Level Leader

Recently, I’ve been working with a number of mid-level leaders (e.g., Directors) who are looking to make the move into the ranks of senior leadership (V.P. and beyond). They’re at that in-between stage in their leadership career where they have significant responsibilities in leading their own teams but aren’t always the ones making the strategic decisions that affect how their teams operate. These mid-level leaders have the challenge of translating the strategic priorities of the organization into everyday activities their teams will embrace and execute.

If you are a mid-level leader, you know how hard it is to be in the middle.

A common trap that leaders at this level fall into is having an “us versus them” mentality. I see this evidenced by the language they use. When talking about having to implement decisions or policies they or their teams don’t like or didn’t have a part in formulating, they often say things like, “They are making us follow this new process,” or “They want us to adopt this new technology.” Whatever the issue may be, it’s the impersonal “they” that are behind it.

Why is this a problem?

It’s a problem because you are they.

Look at it from the perspective of your team members. You are they. You are leadership. You are the one asking them to follow that new process or adopt that new technology. Once you assume the mantle of leadership, you become one of them.

One of the easiest ways to undermine your credibility as a leader is to pawn off responsibility to the leaders above you. When you do this, you may think you’re showing your team that you’re one of them. However, what you’re actually showing them is that you aren’t fully owning your role as a leader. You run the risk of creating the perception that you lack the power and ability to effectively “manage up” the hierarchy or are hesitant or unwilling to embrace your own leadership authority.

So, how can you authentically navigate the messy middle when you don’t fully understand, agree, or support the decisions made above you? Here’s a few things I suggest you consider.

First, be candid with your team about the reality of the situation. Your team likely knows how you feel, and if you try to mask your feelings by being pollyannish or take their side by blaming someone else, they will see through the smokescreen. Although it’s okay to not be excited or fully supportive of every decision made by senior leadership, it’s not okay to throw others under the bus. Being candid, yet professional, sounds like, “I recognize this is a difficult decision, and if I had the final say I would have handled it differently, yet this is the direction we need to go and I’m going to do my best to make it successful.”

Second, acknowledge your team’s feelings about the situation. Many times, people just need to express their dissatisfaction and “say their piece” before they can move forward. But be careful! Don’t let this turn into a bitch session or a “woe is me” conversation with the team. That only drags everyone down and prevents the team from getting on with the task at hand. Don’t dwell on why or how the decision was made but keep the focus on positive ways to move forward.

Third, own your role as the leader. Regardless of your personal feelings or those of your team, your job is to lead your team in implementing the organization’s priorities. A clear way to demonstrate your ownership is to use “we” language when referring to the organization’s leadership. This sounds like, “We have decided to implement this new process” or “We are adopting this new technology.” Notice the key difference between saying we versus they? We is taking personal responsibility by identifying yourself with the organization’s leadership. They is shifting responsibility to someone else.

Regardless of your level in the organization, once you became a leader, you became one of them. As it relates to your team, the buck stops with you. You are the leader. You are they. Own it!

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