Leadership from back in the pack

Despite lip service to the notion that anyone can be a leader, the fact is there’s leadership and then there’s LEADERSHIP and few of us will achieve upper case status. It’s lonely at the top for a reason. There’s only one chief executive officer or president. Everyone else leads in his or her shadow.

following_the_boss_14369This is a hard pill to swallow for recent college grads, including the students with whom I work in Messiah College’s Master of Arts in Higher Education. Today’s young adults are the products of multiple leadership development programs, beginning as early as their grade school years. They see the problems in the system – any system – and have answers. They’re chomping at the bit to make a difference, to take charge.

But the corner office is a long way into their futures, if ever. For now, and most likely for the whole of their careers, they will lead from somewhere back in the pack. And as organizational theorists Lee Bolman and Joan Gallos state in an article written for mid-level college administrators, that’s a hard and often frustrating place in which to find yourself. “The daily demands make it easy to lose faith and perspective” they warn.

The antidote? Bolman and Gallos tout the importance of “strategies for moving beyond the squeeze to make things happen in a pressure-filled world.” I encourage you to read their article for yourself. Until then, here is more of what the pair have to say.


Regardless of where on the totem pole you find yourself or how entry-level your job, there are opportunities for leadership. To maximize the possibilities:

Act like a top when you can. Recognize the power you have and don’t be afraid to use it.

Be a bottom when you have to. Put aside the middle’s temptation to try to please everyone and say no when you know something is wrong or won’t work.

Enlist and coach others. Help others work better instead of doing their work, making their conflicts your own, or jumping in to fix things that others have broken.

Be a facilitator. Bring people in conflict together and help them work through their issues.

Find support and solace in peers. Create opportunities to connect with others in the middle. They understand the pressures you face and can share the strategies they use to lead well.

At the end of the day, effectiveness in leadership isn’t about your place on the org chart. It’s about your contribution to advancing the mission of the organization/institution in which you work. It’s about inspiring others to excellence. It’s about knowing that you’ve done your best.

I can’t promise that leading in these ways will get you to the C-suite. I can guarantee, however, that life will be sweeter for having done so.


  1. When team members are not doing their part, and deadline is coming up, I end up doing the work. Later, (still fuming) I get them together and let them know that others can easily fill their spot. If there’s a reason, then I need to know ASAP. Some people will just be content to get by; infuriating to those whose expectations are to roll the sleeves of the mind up and make your efforts count even going above and beyond.

  2. Rebekah, this is such an important topic and a great post! Organizations need people like this throughout and on every level. Thanks for sharing!

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