Stuck in the middle with you


  • Social brain

From time to time I get asked to write an endorsement to accompany a new book. I am impressed by anyone who is able undertake a sustained piece of writing (regular readers will recall my travails over the mere 9,000 words of my recent pamphlet), so I tend both to say ‘yes’ and to be generous in my praise. As long as it’s written with good intentions and based on a reasonable amount of research there is something worthwhile to be found in any book (as there is in any conversation) and, anyway, I don’t flatter myself that many people buy books simply on the recommendation of  someone whose name they are unlikely to recognise.

This week I have been dipping into a new book on the evolutionary basis of leadership. I shan’t say much more in case I am breaking some copyright rule or endorsers’ convention. But there was one argument I found particularly intriguing.

Having explained why it is we are primed by evolution to be most likely to want to follow tall healthy men or people who are good communicators, the authors have a section explaining why we tend not to like middle managers.

They argue that we evolved in small social units in which there was no need for an intermediate tier between the chief and the tribe. So, while we have an innate capacity to follow, and some of us to lead, we have no predisposition to feel attachment to those in-between. Of course, our evolution shapes us but it doesn’t determine our behaviour, so we can learn to love middle managers. But the book’s thesis does raise a couple of thoughts:

1.  While many middle managers try to deal with the role by emphasising the challenge of being stuck between the General and the troops this is probably the worst approach. Instead, middle managers should adopt either a collegiate approach in which they present themselves as very much part of the tribe and therefore able to win peer respect, or as big autonomous leaders whose drive and personality obscures the other leaders standing behind.   

2. The overwhelming majority of managers are middle managers. As well as the formal status of those working in medium sized and large organisations, many of those who may appear to be the chief (especially in the public and third sector) feel tightly constrained by targets, trustees or clients. Might it be that the general decline in societal deference in part reflects the predominant experience in bureaucratic mass societies of leadership as being compromised and constrained? Having an evolutionary disposition towards strong, assertive leadership, does the dilute, almost apologetic nature of most of the leadership we encounter engender a recurrent feeling of being let down?

I realise this is a pretty grand hypothesis, but at least you’ve got the weekend to think about it.

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