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Why the Middle is So Challenging

Why is the role of the middle manager so challenging? From my perspective, the issue is this: middle leaders don’t have just one role … they have three. 


Middle managers cover a huge range, from new people leaders with their first direct report to VPs with teams of fifty or sometimes many more. 

Often, articles and experts talk about middle management as the organizational layer squeezed between the individuals doing the day-to-day work and the senior leaders setting strategic direction. 

I tend to think of this group not so much as squeezed, but rather pulled in three directions: up, down, and across. That is, the middle manager has to play multiple roles at the same time. They must deliver on the demands coming from their direct boss. They must motivate and inspire their teams to get the work done, often in challenging conditions. And they must influence peers and senior leaders alike to get support and resources for their efforts. 

They are doer, leader, and influencer all at once.

Navigating these three distinct roles is what makes middle management so challenging. 

Most people spend the first years of their career learning how to do the work. When they’ve demonstrated enough proficiency as “doers,” they’re promoted to managerial roles. Managers, still have tasks they must do themselves, but now they’re expected to take on leading and influencing as well. Having never done these latter two roles, managers are left feeling profoundly uncomfortable. Without guidance or training, many managers either revert to just “doing,” because that’s what they know best, or try to emulate their own managers, who often have never been trained either.

As a middle manager, acknowledging you have these 3 roles and understanding the purpose of each role can put you on the path toward mastering middle leadership. 

Doer - For the middle manager, the doer role is all about building credibility. If you consistently get the work done on time, on budget, and at a high quality, you create trust with your direct boss. The result: they give you more responsibility and bigger/better projects. 

Leader - Your goal as leader is to build the capacity of your team. Train them to work independently and make decisions without you. Get the team so it can function exceptionally, even when you’re not there. This not only empowers the team, but also frees up your time to level up, taking higher level work off your manager’s plate. Everyone benefits. 

Influencer - With your peers and more senior colleagues, your influencer role is how you gain commitment. By learning how to navigate the complex interpersonal interactions and relationships, you can create a network of alignment and support. This, in turn, allows you to realize your vision and bring your own big ideas to life. 

Building credibility, creating capacity, and gaining commitment. These are what make middle leaders successful. It’s rare that anyone is truly trained in these “soft skills” - which makes them seem elusive or mysterious. But, as with any capability, there are defined trainable skills which can be learned. 

If you’re a middle manager interested in discovering the skills to become a great doer-leader-influence or looking for support for the middle managers in your organization, send me a message at or follow this link - 1:1 Coaching, Group Coaching, Courses, Workshops, Course/Coaching Experiences, and Keynotes.