What does leadership look like when you aren’t in charge? We often do this in our professional and personal lives – managing up, down, and sometimes upside-down. This is what it means to “lead from the middle,” and the concept can be useful to board members. This type of leadership, when we are supporting, persuading, or coaching, often goes unrecognized but is very effective.
Having been a Member at Large, Secretary, Treasurer, and Chair on various boards over the past five years, I have had opportunities to practice leading from the middle. I have not always done well, so I have learned quite a bit! Here are four of my key insights for effectively leading from the middle of your board, with examples from the Aurora team.
1. Step up to leadership
It doesn’t help anyone if you sit quietly during meetings and grumble afterwards. You are on the board to make a difference. Own your leadership role! Make a commitment to use your voice to positively impact the organization and the board.
Example: I’m a natural doer (if you didn’t know, I like to get stuff done). So I have experienced frustration when board meetings do not focus on critical issues, committees talk in circles, and task forces can’t wrap their arms around their charges. Instead of taking over the work myself (or giving up), I asked questions, voiced my thoughts and ideas, made requests, and proposed plans. With each frustration, I found opportunities to fulfill my role as a strategic leader on the board.
2. Share what you know about leadership
If you have processes, strategies, or rationales for how to make decisions, run meetings, or include all voices, share them with the board in a spirit of helpfulness. Your transparency will help others understand you and join you in your efforts. You will also be modeling leadership practices from which others can learn.
Example: Al Onkka and I have developed templates for monthly and quarterly board meetings, facilitation agendas, and discussion arcs. We use these templates in our daily work as board members chairing committees or leading conversations. It can be hard to step onto a board and feel like you are calling into question how the board or organization works, but your questions are often shared, and your abilities will be appreciated.
3. Name the issue
Rather than immediately trying to solve a problem, start by simply defining it. Boards often grapple with shadow monsters because we don’t see clearly the issues that we are facing or avoiding. By naming the key issues and breaking out the components of each, your will help your board set a clear path for engaging in group discussion and decision-making.
Example: After sitting through a few board meetings reviewing activity reports, hearing the leadership’s points of concern, and seeing the organization’s finances, Julia Classen named three key issues that seemed to be surfacing. By identifying and naming the discrete issues that were intertwined in the different discussions, Julia helped other board members clarify their confusion and focus the conversation on the most pressing issue.
4. Clarify your limits
Identify the boundaries of what you are willing to take on and lead. How many initiatives, task forces, or other responsibilities are you able and willing to shoulder? Make sure you are being realistic with your limits because you and your board will suffer if you take on too much. Instead of volunteering to lead everything, or nothing, consider how you can support others. By supporting their efforts, you will help others develop their own leadership and strengthen the board.
Example: Again, I’m a natural doer. I stepped onto a board and immediately began volunteering for tasks that other board positions were better situated to complete. This was unhelpful for two reasons. First, I was over-extending myself. Second, I was enabling others to under-extend. Recognizing my behavior, I worked with the Executive Director to identify how I could help the Executive Director support more participation from other board members during and between meetings.
We are here, as board members, to make our beloved organizations better, stronger, and more capable of serving our communities. Leading from the middle is a helpful way to think about how to contribute to the board’s shared efforts. Even if some of your efforts run aground, you, your board, and your organization will develop in leadership capabilities if you practice leading from the middle.