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Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #106: Leading From the Middle: I’m Not the Boss! You Do the Leading!

October 1, 2020
Maxwell Executive Leadership Podcast #106: Leading From the Middle: I’m Not the Boss! You Do the Leading!

Leading from the middle of an organization can be challenging. There’s a myth in leadership that you need to have a title or positional power to be able to lead. This is not true. What you need is influence. In today’s episode Chris and Perry discuss ways to develop influence to help you lead without a title.

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Read the Transcript:

Perry Holley:    Welcome to the John Maxwell Executive Leadership podcast, where our goal is to help you increase your reputation as a leader, increase your ability to influence others and increase your ability to fully engage your team to deliver remarkable results. Hi, I’m Perry Holley, a John Maxwell facilitator and coach.

Chris Goede:     Thanks for joining. I’m Chris Goede, Executive Vice President with the John Maxwell Company. We are grateful that you have joined us today. Today we’re going to really talk about a principle that underlines everything that Perry and I’ve been talking about for a couple of years now, which is the five levels of leadership. We’re going to get into the similarities between them. But we’re going to talk really about John’s principles around 360 degree leader. I’m really excited about that.

But before we get started, if you want to download the guide that Perry’s created for us to follow along, or maybe you have a comment or a question for us. If you’ll visit, you can find the information there.

Today’s title, which if you’ve listened to us, you know we love joking around about the titles that Perry’s come up with, but this one is great. Leading From the Middle, I’m Not the Boss, You Do the Leading. I want to say that often. When Perry gave me this title, I tried to use it around the office. We’ll tell you how that went a little bit later, but there’s two exclamation points in this title. Perry, should I be concerned about your approach to this? Should our listeners be concerned?

Perry Holley:    I think this whole idea of leading from the middle, if you think about it for a minute, we’re all… Unless you are at the top, you’re the CEO, and then you probably have a board of directors. We all are in the middle at some point. We need influence up, down and across. I’m surprised how much the idea comes up on coaching calls that we do that I’m not the leader, I’m not the boss, so I don’t have to lead. The people, I find, have a real limited, and most of us have at any time, a limited view of what leadership really is. They think about it as the position, as the title. We teach that it’s about influence.

Chris Goede:     Obviously it’s not new to me now, but it was new to me before I joined John’s organization years ago. He talks a lot about how we define leadership as influence. That was something that I wasn’t used to hearing. I didn’t understand it. I grew up in a blue collar family and it was like, I spent so many years here and this is my manager and this is my leader. So that’s the structure I had. To your point, not only on coaching calls, but we still do a lot of discovery and even consulting with organizations and with some people that don’t feel like they have influence inside the organization because they don’t have a tenure, they don’t have a title. As we dive into this, one of the things I was thinking about was, take yourself back and think about some examples of people that have great influence in your life. Who are those individuals that you’re thinking about? Because I promise you, I’m just throwing a number out here, maybe half of them probably didn’t even have a title in the situation. Maybe it’s more than that, about those that have had influence. When you think about that, then I want you to think about yourself and the ability to influence those inside your organization. You don’t have to do it with having a title.

Perry Holley:    That’s a really good point. I think about a guy when I was trying to make decisions about my life, my dad introduced me to one of his friends who probably had a big title. I never knew it. But his influence in my life came from his experience, his willingness to contribute to me, the way he led his life. A lot of things that contributed, I was going to listen and pay attention, he had influenced, but he never had a title me.

Chris Goede:     Not a title to you, yeah.

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Perry Holley:    When we do the 360 degree workshop, John always starts off with some myths that we tend to believe if we’re not at the top. One of them, I thought I’d just throw it out at you, was the really first myth we talk about ever in the workshop is the position myth, that says I can’t lead if I’m not at the top. I was wondering if you see that in the workplace?

Chris Goede:     Absolutely. Back to what we just talked about a minute ago, I think on coaching calls and in discovery conversations, we have leaders. We have people with influence that that feel like they can’t make a change, they can’t influence, because they are not the top dog. That’s not necessarily true at all. Even inside here, inside the John Maxwell Company in our world, there are people that are leading different initiatives, different projects, different change, that are not necessarily John or not Mark Cole, our CEO. So that is a myth.

Another myth that we want to bring out is, it comes from the 360 degree leaders, is the influence myth. Now this goes back to almost how we started our session today, which is, listen, if I were on top, people would follow me because that’s why I have influence. That is not at all what we’re talking about here today. Matter of fact, in John’s 21 laws, which I call it 21 laws, I leave out irrefutable because for the longest time, I didn’t even know what that word meant. I shortened it. It’s called 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership under the law of influence. John says in there, the true measure of leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less. That’s what it’s about. I mentioned early, as we introed today, about the five levels of leadership. John actually began that content really not even talking about leadership. It was really the five levels of influence. That was the first chapter in Developing Leader Within You, when he first wrote it was, these are the five levels of influence. It only got changed to the five levels of leadership because the publisher wanted to change the title when John wrote the book on that entire model. So it is really, truly about the influence you have with people.

Perry Holley:    It’s funny. I did a keynote on Saturday this past week, for a group of physicians in their world. Even though they are the physician that seems like a title, when they’re in the workspace, they have a lot of peers in there. They were very interested because they think I really can’t get anybody to do anything because I’m not really the boss of the situation. I said, “You’re looking at it all wrong.”

One thing I think that would help on our discussion today, for our listeners, is if you’re a person without a title in the organization, what could you be doing to develop influence? But then I started thinking, it’s also, if you have a title, what could you be doing not to lean on the title, but to be developing your influence more? When you’re thinking about somebody, if you were going to coach someone in the middle of an organization, they don’t have a title. They’re on your team. They don’t have that leadership title. What would you do? Where would you go first on what you could be doing to develop personal influence?

Chris Goede:     I’m going to go right back to the foundation of why you and I started this podcast at this level. It’s really around the model of the five levels of leadership. For those that maybe are joining us late in the podcast series, and maybe aren’t familiar with the five levels model, let me just real quick talk about it just to give you a little bit of a structure of what we’re talking about. What I want you to think about is this works with individuals. This works with people. So it doesn’t matter if it’s your leader, if it’s your peer, if it’s someone that’s reporting to you, doesn’t matter.

We talk about the fact that you have influence with people at level one. This is the base, because of the fact that you have a title. When we say that, we’re not talking about title of leader title, we’re just talking about the fact that the organization gave you a title. I have the opportunity to work for the John Maxwell Company. People will follow you because you work for the John Maxwell Company.

Level two, people will follow you because they want to. We talk about this. They give you permission to lead. This is really where I think you got to do a lot of work at all direction of 360. That is getting them to give you permission to lead them. This is where you got to build the connection with them. You got to relate to them. You got to build relationships. You’ve got to build connections. You got to listen. All those emotional intelligence things we talk about.

Level three is where you begin to produce inside the organization and you get influenced because people are looking at it saying, man Perry’s getting it done over there and he’s building influence. Doesn’t matter your title, it’s the fact that you’re producing.

Then level four, we call this the reproduction level where you begin to say, let me tell you how I’m producing. Let me show you. Let me mentor you. Let me coach you. Then all of a sudden you’re gaining influence, not because of your title, but because you’ve invested in people.

Then we talk about a level five. John says, it’s the pinnacle level. This is where you have done levels two, three, and four, because we say level one was given to by the organization. You’ve done levels two, three, and four so well, for so long, that people look at you as that pinnacle leader.

When you think about that model of influence, nowhere in there did I say Perry is the CEO or he’s my sales leader or none of that stuff. I’m talking about levels of influence. I think if you get your mind around that idea, that it doesn’t matter where you’re at in the organization, even if you’re in the middle and all of us are in the middle at some point. We have people that we’re working with and reporting to and all that good stuff. But I think if you keep that in mind with everybody that you relate with, then you will have greater influence inside your organization.

The greatest leap in all of leadership is that leap from, I have to follow you to where I want to follow you. What would I need to do then, telling the physicians. If you don’t have a title, he said, “Do they have to work with you or they want to work with you?” I’m giving you permission, that’s a great word, I’m giving you permission to influence me. What do I have to do, to do that?

One of the thing I’ve noticed, it’s hard… I am going to ask you, how do you know somebody? How do you lead yourself? I think leading yourself well is one of the very first steps where people take notice. But I think it’s hard to notice when somebody… You don’t really pay attention when they lead themselves well. You just accept it. But when they don’t lead themselves well, you absolutely notice it. I was wondering, what kind of components show up when you think someone leading themselves?

That’s a great question. I think what I see in people when I know that they’re leading themselves well, is what is big for me, is the word consistency and how they’re interacting, how they’re contributing to the conversation, the disciplines I see in their daily life. We talk about John’s statement of consistency compounds. I think if you do that on a daily basis, you’ll begin to see that in people and how they’re managing their time.

The other thing that I’m very aware of is when I have conversations with people about work projects, culture, whatever it might be, leadership, doesn’t matter, the value that they’re bringing to those conversations is a very quick identifier for me on, are they truly developing themselves? Or am I hearing the same ideas, the same thoughts, the same over and over again. What are they bringing to the conversation, is an indicator for me on, are they leading themselves well? Because at the root of leading yourself well is developing yourself self-awareness and developing yourself. For me, that’s what I look for now.

I know that there are challenges. We don’t want this to sound like it’s just so easy. I’m going to gain influence and be able to lead everybody without a title. So I know there are challenges to leading without a title. Let’s dive in and talk about some of those.Perry Holley:    I want to add to that, about lead yourself well. One thing you notice in people that don’t, I’ve noticed are always out of time. They don’t manage their time well. They major on minor things. They don’t really know what the priorities are. They haven’t really managed their emotions well. You mentioned consistency. It’s an inconsistency of emotions. They’re angry, or they’re really happy, or they’re over the top, or they’re down below. People that have that consistency, they manage those priorities and their time and their emotions, I find are thoughtful, intentional type people that are managing themselves. I’m influenced by that. If you’re out of time, got your hair on fire, come running in late on two wheels, I’m not influenced by that. I actually almost step back and watch the impending disaster on that.

The challenges, there are some challenges you think about when you’re in the middle and maybe you don’t have a title. It’s one of the ones we talk about quite a bit. We call it the tension challenge that you may be being expected to run the show, but you’re not in charge of it. You’re not responsible for it. You’re working for someone who’s got responsibility for it, but they’re putting all that on you. Whatever authority that you possess is really not yours. It’s on loan from someone. Because you’re in the middle, it can place restrictions on you and what you can do. That’s really where the tension comes in.

So how does someone overcome the tension challenge?

Chris Goede:     I think this is a learned behavior as you begin to grow through your career. I think you can learn to lead despite those restrictions. You mentioned authority, and one of the things I was thinking about was, in this weird spot that we all feel you have some power and authority and you can make the decisions. But at the same time, you have a lack of power and authority in other areas. What you don’t want to do is overstep your authority, or maybe influence. Maybe there’s the word, you can use both of those. That’s the key, right? It’s understanding that you’re in that middle and you’re just trying to gain influence and be careful not to overstep your authority.

But I think a couple of things just to mention to you here to be aware of is, be comfortable in that. Know that we’re all in there, in the middle at certain times, know what to own and what to let go. Don’t try to take too much on, that maybe you haven’t been given permission to lead. Here’s one that I love, which is, find quick access to answers, and then follow up with those answers. You may not know all the answers and you don’t know all the answers and that is okay, but just make sure once you find them out that you follow up in order to increase your influence from the middle. Then never violate the trust of the leader. Don’t be running AWOL and all different things and trying all kinds of stuff that is going to violate the trust of your leader.

An additional challenge is when you also report to an ineffective leader. We just talked about an effective leader, not losing their trust. How do we handle that challenge?

Perry Holley:    Yeah, I actually had this once. We call it the frustration challenge. Especially people that are in the middle, that have leadership aspirations and you’re growing as a leader, and you aspire to be that title leader in charge one day, and you’re working for someone that you don’t feel is as effective as you could be. That’s very frustrating on the inside. I worked for a guy once and I thought, I got to get away from this. I’ve got to run. Then I got this teaching about, if you’re working for a less effective leader and you feel that frustration, what I began to do with this guy was, I figured out, where is he strong? Does he have some things he’s strong at it and he’s got some things he’s that he’s week in.

But it’s not my job to fix he or she. It’s not my job to fix that leader. It’s my job to help that leader and add value to that leader. That’s a big boy thought there, to say, they’re going to be strong and weak. I’m strong and weak. Things I felt like I could do was, begin to really develop my relationship with that person, understand who they are and where they’re coming from, appreciate the strengths that they have, and recognize that they are strong. This guy, he was a master at understanding the organization and understanding the dynamics of how all the things work together.

Add value where I can, to where he’s strong, but then find ways to compliment where he was weak. He was weak in communication. He over promised, under delivered. People would roll their eyes when he would talk, but I’m pretty good at communication. So I began to come alongside him to help craft the communications. I never told him, “You’re really weak in this area. I’m going to,” No, you don’t do that. Of course, that would be undermining his authority. I just began to add value, “Hey, did you think about this? Could we try that? Would you mind if I took the lead on that,” and really began to take things off his plate.

Then I would just, for my own sanity, would publicly affirm him. If anybody spoke negatively or didn’t understand something, I didn’t feel it was my job to defend him, but I would affirm that he’s doing good. He’s doing the best he can. We’re working on it. What improvements could we make? We’re growing, we’re learning and make it as positive as possible. It helped me develop influence with him and then with the rest of the organization, because I’m coming alongside. I’m not trying to undermine, I’m trying to add value and help them grow.

Chris Goede:     By doing that, and those things that you’ve talked about, simple principles, not simple to live out. You will increase your influence with that leader. If you take that mindset with everyone inside the organization, peers, those they report to, I absolutely think that you’ll be able to increase your influence.

Let me wrap up for us. I just love talking about the fact that… I hate that it’s even taken us this long. I know you’re a huge fan of the 360 degree content, but I love how the principles align with the five levels model of influence. I love how John wrote this book years ago, I don’t know how many years ago, but how relative these principles are even in our environment today.

I think all of us are in this position. We’ve said it several times today, to where we are in the middle, whether you’re a CEO reporting to a board or whatever it might be. This is one of the greatest challenges that we deal with as a leader. We’re going to have to work through those tensions and those frustrations that we’ve talked about.

I just want to leave you with two questions. What are your leader’s strengths? Begin to think about that. Instead of getting frustrated with your leader and thinking about not leading in the middle, what are your leader’s greatest strengths? The second question that is to Perry’s point that he just talked about, how can you add value to them? You have to be asking yourself those questions in your, what we call white space time, or your thinking time, which again, I know a lot of us don’t do that. Even I challenge to do that.

Perry Holley:    There’s another podcast there somewhere.

Chris Goede:     Yeah. Matter of fact, block out an hour and then listen to our podcast and then have thought time. I want you to think about those two questions and just remember, it’s not about the title. It’s really all about influence. So in order to build your influence, your positions will follow your titles will follow, your responsibilities will follow, but it’s not about getting a title, and then you’re going to be able to lead and have this authority and this power. It all starts with influence so just keep that in the mind. It doesn’t matter what your title is. It’s really about influence. Start by asking yourself those two questions.

Perry Holley:    Fantastic. Thank you, Chris. As a reminder, if you’d like to learn more about these five levels of influence of leadership or the 360 degree leader, please go to You can leave a comment for us there. You can leave a question for us there. You can get the learner guide for this and every episode there. We’re very grateful that you would join us for this time. That’s it today from the John Maxwell Executive Leadership podcast

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