Leading from the middle

One of my mentors has a leadership philosophy framed around leading from the middle. The concept, while very simple, is ultra complex. If you take a position that is on one end of a spectrum, you alienate those who are on the other end. How do you reach those who you disagree with if you are already miles apart? Leading from the middle means that you don’t get to take sides. It means that you are not going to be seen in a positive light by a lot of folks.

The recent legislative happenings in Arizona are a great example of the strains of what it takes to lead from the middle. Am I upset about everything that is going on in Arizona right now? You bet I am. I am saddened and angry. A lot of people seem to be forgetting what it means to be human. Humanity and dignity are being swiftly stripped away from marginalized populations in Arizona. Is it about racism? I think so. It’s about xenophobia, discrimination and power. Overall, those who are in charge of making laws in Arizona are doing horrible things right now.

How does this relate to leading from the middle? The protests that have been taking place in and outside of Arizona make a lot of people feel good. It makes me feel good to know that movements of people are joining together to fight for justice. However, I doubt that the lawmakers in Arizona are listening. I doubt that those who agree with the new laws are listening. Listening, in the sense that you are really processing, takes an awareness and openness that is lacking right now. Activism is important. Movements need to happen, but I wonder how we move forward when we seem to move backwards so much. How do we lead and live in the middle when things are so polarized right now….

  • Can you explain how this is functionally different than Clinton’s Third Way or centrism in general? Picking the point equidistant from two opposing camps – the proverbial middle – ceases to make sense when one camp has totally lost it.

    I also think it serves to legitimate positions that should not be legitimated. Or is it possible to humanize the people involved without legitimizing the position, and if so, how?

    In other words, can you complexify this a bit? Because I find myself skeptical that this thinking can coexist with a commitment to justice.

  • This should provide more context:

    I think that you nailed it…it is a tremendous challenge to try to maintain the dignity of all involved while not legitimizing something that is unethical or unjust.

  • I read that article some time back, and my reaction this time through was the same then: It’s incomplete. It tells us what must be done, but doesn’t say how or spell it out. In other words, it does not convince me that a commitment to justice can coexist with the middle as it’s being described.

    One of the reasons that Third Wayism fails is that it’s taken the place of a left. If all you have is a center and a right, and the center’s more concerned about maintaining dignity – clearly worth doing! – the whole debate gets pulled sharply to the right.

    I think this is happening at OSU. One side wants to focus on process, and the other wants to win. What do you think is going to happen?

  • I don’t believe that framing things as left or right will ever result in real change. I also don’t believe that framing things as debates or as winnable will ever result in real change. I think that’s what Larry is speaking to…framing things about dignity means re-framing the entire concept of what it means to be a change agent that hopes to maintain everyone’s humanity.

    I think that it cannot be about winning. Winning as it’s currently constructed means that there are sides and losers.

  • I think your comment just supports my point: If there is one group advocating for a position, and another advocating for a process, the position’s going to win a lot more often. This idea only works if there is widespread buy-in to the reframing. So far, at OSU, there isn’t.

  • Dennis

    I’ve just re-read the article again, and I am struck by this question: How does justice relate to the idea of leading using the values and mission of the institution?

  • I just linked from your tweet about revisiting this concept. I also read the Roper article you used in your response to the first comment.

    I don’t disagree with the concept – however, the Roper article was talking about a specific role within a specific community — SA professionals within the academic community.

    Whether one can lead from the middle or not may be dependent on several factors – one being your role within the community. Another may be where we are on the timeline leading to the decision/vote. Can it be there is a time for leading from the middle and a time for taking your stand on the issue?

    One last thought. I think that polarization is one “easy” way out – I take my polarized position and I don’t have to listen to those at the other end of the spectrum. I, then, have a right not to know anything that might further inform me. Leading from the middle poses a similar pitfall, or so it seems to me. If one leads from the middle, offering a place of acceptance and deep listening for others, one gets to facilitate but one may also get a pass on taking an authentic position oneself.

    I have to believe that, as human beings, we are capable of openness to different views at the same time as having an authentic position ourselves. Suggesting that we can’t do both/and but must be either/or is just another way of maintaining the polarization.