What makes a good middle leader?

Levin’s 7

Many of you watching this are likely to have taken up, or soon to take up, a middle leader position. A middle leader is a leader within an organisation that is not necessarily the ultimate decision maker. There may be people above you who are giving you instructions, yet you also have a team that sits below and around you that you have been tasked with leading. This seemingly small technicality is an important one because carrying out a change or decision when you have not been the one to take it in the first place, can sometimes be difficult. 

So, to frame this for you, let’s remind ourselves that true leadership is not confined to those who are in charge of others. Leadership can be exhibited from all sorts of levels within an organisation and it is highly variable and dynamic. Some people who may not normally be in a leadership position, may adopt a leadership role for a specific event, for a short period of time. This is what we call Distributed Leadership and we will cover this in a later module. Some of the best leaders that I have observed have probably not even been aware that they are leading in a very specific way or circumstance, but they have exhibited excellent leadership behaviours nonetheless. This module will examine some of these behaviours in more detail by looking at 7 characteristics of good middle leaders, identified by Levin in 2007. 

The first is a sense of vision. The best leaders are considered ‘visionary’. In other words they are ambitious in their team’s vision and strive to put that as far ahead as possible. Good leaders, whether they are in senior roles or not, are very good at communicating their ‘endgame’ to their teams and providing a clear path on how they will get there.

The second is that they ‘extend the horizon of the possible’. This means that good middle leaders create an environment of possibility beyond that which the team perhaps has been used to up until that point. This is really important in establishing the opportunities for growth that the team may have. For example if a team is tasked with increasing the number of paying clients or customers for the business, the sky’s the limit. Only by having that belief in their roles can the true creativity be brought to the table by ALL members of the team. And in that way the best possible outcomes can be secured for any future strategy on increasing customer engagement. 

But following on from this it then becomes the leader’s responsibility to make sure that reality is always used as a check and balance, and optimism forms the basis of the culture of the team. This, in a way, relates back to the vision. The vision should be ambitious and the creativity on how to reach the vision should be a key focus, but without a realistic view of what can be achieved in an allotted amount of time, the team becomes a centre of dreams rather than achievements.

The next characteristic of effective middle leaders is the attention to relevant data that will support the need for any developments. I’m sure that many of you will have been in organisations where there are so many initiatives that some fall by the wayside and never get completed, or some may add on a load of work to the team members without much return on the energy and time that they may have taken to achieve in the first place. By focussing on appropriate data and making sure that the energies are directed at the right time and in the right place, leaders can provide relevant opportunities for the team to develop towards their vision. 

Next up we have the ability of good leaders to mediate and mould the thinking of their teams so that this develops in line with the team’s objectives. Once again this comes back to aligning people’s professional development with the team’s vision. Always keeping alive the conversation about the vision for the team so that this becomes the driver for change and development.

Inevitably a team that is moving forward is also facing change, and this can sometimes be significant. We will discuss change later on in a separate module but for now it’s key to note that change represents a range of emotions in people and in teams and not all of this is positive. Good leaders make sure they always keep the negatives in perspective, both for themselves and for their teams. They make sure that the impact of any negativity is offset by positives, and in so doing they lessen the impact of the negative on a wider scale of perception.

And finally good leaders make sure that they pay constant attention to the development of capacity within their teams. Even though I have mentioned this point last of all, it is in fact important to remember that capacity building is a key focus from the word go. From the moment you take over a new team, or start to build a new team, you need to keep an eye out for potential within your team and capitalise on this as far as possible. This will have two wonderful effects. The first is that your team will always feel valued because you are providing members with responsibilities that will help them grow professionally, and the second is that your team will become more cohesive and powerful in its output. All too often it can be tempting to stick to the letter of a job description, and in my experience this does not result in high performance of the team. 

These are the seven characteristics of high performing leaders. Three key takeaways are:


Have a strong, ambitious vision for your team no matter what level you are leading at, and communicate this clearly and regularly.
Maintain optimistic and realistic goals that are achievable for your team, and celebrate milestones.
Always seek to build the capacity of your team through constant attention to innate talent development, and team skill development.

And finally, you, as leader of the team, remember that good teams are far greater than the sum of their parts. 

Point of Reflection:

Great Middle leaders pay attention to the development of ‘capacity’ in their teams. Is your team running at its optimum capacity? If not, who in your team could use some of your attention to help them develop their personal capacity?

Personal Development Activity:

PLC contribution activity  (60 mins)

It has been said that the three most important factors in building team capacity are 1) Peer learning opportunities, 2) Development of leadership skills and 3) Collaboration Planning. 


  1. In your leadership journal, start a list (that you can continue to add to over time) of items and initiatives that fall into each of these categories. For example you may wish to record ‘cross pollination meetings with ‘School B’ to discuss sharing music teachers’ as a Collaboration Planning initiative. 
  2. Populate the list with as many initiatives that directly affect your team as you can think of.
  3. Make a quick assessment of where, out of these three categories, your strengths and weaknesses lie.
  4. Report your findings on the PLC to initiate a discussion with other colleagues.

Note 1: Be sure to treat this list as a dynamic list that you continually return to, each time you establish a new initiative.

Note 2: You can use this activity as a Collaboration Planning activity once you have done it!