Twenty-six participants from twelve different countries! That’s what David and I found awaited us when we landed recently in Frankfurt (Germany, not Kentucky) to teach a leadership workshop. We fretted: Would we be seen as ‘super-power’ imperialists imposing American leadership principles on them? Would we be accused of cultural insensitivity, not realizing that real football is played with your feet? Would we even understand their accents?
What we discovered was earthshaking in its obviousness. While our participants came from Lebanon, Russia, Portugal, Ireland, and many other countries, each one happened to be a member of the human race. Further, each was a member of a subspecies of that race – they were middle managers from a complex global corporation.
And as middle managers they had more in common with each other (and with us) than our pre-program jitters permitted us to realize. So even though there currently are many serious global political and religious tensions, what unified us became more apparent than what divided us. And what unifies us is rarely discussed because it does not make headlines.
Flying back from Europe I reflected on what does unify us. Three things about middle managers came into focus:
They are ‘meat in the sandwich’
Middle managers feel the tension of functioning amid the conflicting needs and priorities of others. Their bosses mandate short-term results and immediate responsiveness while also demanding them to be strategic, longer-term thinkers. Their employees hunger for empowerment while complaining that their roles and objectives are unclear. Regardless of function or national heritage, middle managers are constantly balancing on one leg, spinning multiple plates and wishing for another set of arms.
They are insecure and fearful
Middle managers often combine two hazardous attributes. They are high achievers, ambitious to succeed and get ahead. And, they generally hate disappointing anyone. Combined, these attributes contribute to sleepless nights and over-work. We know that a moderate dose of fear of disappointing others is healthy – otherwise deadlines would be missed and relationships would suffer. But when taken to extreme, middle managers sacrifice their personal lives, and at work they end up taking fewer risks – why take a risk if you might not get the results you seek?
They crave community
Our program in Europe focused on the importance of emotional intelligence relative to technical expertise and IQ, as an employee steps up from specialist to manager to leader. At its heart, emotional intelligence is about being self-aware – knowing what we are feeling when we are feeling, and managing our reactions to those feelings. As we become more deeply self-aware, we actually become more sympathetic to others’ feelings as well.
When our participants disclosed their personal feelings and challenges to each other, they recognized how much they had in common. They proved that the notion, ‘no one can understand me,’ is based on incorrect assumptions. As they made significant connections with strangers from other countries, a sense of community and caring developed.
While everyone had individual take-aways from the workshop, the most significant might have been this: building a sense of community and common interests can create a ‘force field of support’ that mitigates (but does not remove) the feeling of pressure built into the role of middle manager. Our participants learned that building community was their true leadership task when they returned to work.
I returned from the trip and landed in snowed-in Philadelphia to make my connection home. Most flights, including mine, were cancelled. The airport was a zoo. We all tried desperately to get where we wanted, focused exclusively on our own needs.
Later, as I settled in to the hotel where I was stuck that night, I appreciated that building community is easier in a three-day leadership program than in a pressure cooker environment with limited resources, like a shut down airport, or a large global corporation. It takes resilient, compassionate leadership to create community within these complex, often unstable systems. This may be our participants’ principal challenge in the years to come, and I hope they see that they’re in it together.