Do Real Leaders Work Middle Out?

There is nothing more rewarding than teaching a group of motivated adult learners.

They are quite different from the students I used to teach in a face-to-face college setting where it was sometimes necessary to channel my inner tap dancer to get and keep their attention. Instead, these adult learners are generally much more motivated and eager to learn.

Perhaps more importantly, they have much to contribute to the classroom in terms of information, knowledge, and wisdom.

That realization is continually reinforced for me during the webinars we offer as part of our training and certification for community builders. 

As someone who is passionate about transformative community change, I often stress the key role of community developers as change agents. And, while I do realize there is a time and place for top down or grasstops leadership, I typically have done more to promote the importance of working at a grassroots level and using a bottom-up approach.

However, following one webinar, a participant sent me an article about a different concept — middle-out?

Middle-out was a perspective that was new to me and likely not something I would even have read about because it came from an Environmental Change Institute. And yet, it makes absolute sense in virtually every setting. In fact, its unlikely that any transformative change will happen with out it.

Whereas I had always seen social and technological innovations as being either induced top-down or evolving from the bottom-up, a middle-out perspective focuses on agents of change located in the middle - acting more as a connector who bridges both.

This approach means community leaders can affect change in several different directions: upstream, downstream, and sideways.

As Kathryn B. Janda and Yael Para the authors of the paper explained, linking the top and bottom more explicitly results in an approach that is both alternative and complementary to bottom-up and top-down efforts to facilitate both change and innovation.

Of course, it is much easier to say than do. The role of middle agents will be challenging and complex requiring a sophisticated set of competencies. These will include knowledge and skills related to community building, facilitation, communication and social media, change management, mediation, planning using a community development approach, policy development, an understanding of political governance, collaboration, organizational and group development and much more.

But perhaps what is most important is that agents of change working from the middle out will have to reflect optimism and hope while conveying a belief that together is better. Embracing that belief will be essential, not only for ensuring relevant and meaningful education and training, but also for making our world a better place.

Posted on 11-16-17


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