Empowering the 'missing middle’ managers: from technical experts to inspiring leaders

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Andrew Brown, executive business coach at the Mentally Fit Institute South Africa, sheds light on the plight of the 'missing middle'—those skilled managers aged 32 to 40 grappling with the transition from executing strategies to inspiring leadership.

The workplace is awash with cleverly worded job titles that attempt to elevate the status of managers. Number ninja. Chief of chatting. Wizard of winning. Or, at the other extreme, overly formal titles such as associate director, executive lead, and account director.
In this cacophony of obscure job titles, it comes as no surprise that the modern manager may be confused. They may be unsure about what is expected of them or lack the insight to benchmark their maturity as an effective leader of people.

In leadership development, it is important to make distinctions between what it means to operate as a manager, a leader, and a leader as a coach. Managers are typically exceptional technical experts who still need to develop their management and leadership skills. Strong managers excel at coordination, facilitation, and establishing structures to support project delivery. Leadership, on the other hand, revolves around inspiration, motivation, and a forward-looking perspective. The next level of leadership as a coach focuses on empowering teams, building their capacity, and enabling them to deliver without constant supervision.

One challenge increasingly prevalent in the current corporate landscape is the emergence of a group I refer to as the ‘missing middle’ managers. These individuals, typically between the ages of 32 and 40, are highly skilled technical experts responsible for executing strategies. However, they often struggle to empower their teams, making the transition from manager to leader, and ultimately to leader as coach. Without adequate support, these managers risk burnout and can alienate the very teams they should be supporting. Given their positions of authority, these managers profoundly influence corporate culture, employee retention, and the achievement of business objectives.

The solution to this workplace challenge lies in understanding the connection between the brain and the heart—between intellectual and emotional intelligence (IQ and EQ). Recognising gaps and nurturing one’s EQ is the first step towards unlocking leadership potential and achieving success.

EQ-deficiency red flags

It is said that IQ opens the door, while EQ enables thriving and adaptability. Identifying individuals with absent or underdeveloped EQ is relatively easy. Their behaviours often show up as micromanagement, under-communication, a tendency to handle tasks that should be delegated, and a habit of reclaiming tasks from team members, believing they can do them better.

These EQ-deficient managers often have poor role models who lead by ‘command and control’. This outdated approach is completely devoid of EQ and makes it difficult to inspire teams to bring their A-game.

There is strong evidence to support the defining role that EQ plays in the development of successful leadership traits. For example, Harvard Business School’s High Potentials Leadership Program tracked over 3 000 leaders from 2003 to 2021. The study showed that EQ was second only to strategic management as a key performance skill required for successful leaders.

Systemic flaws encourage weak leadership

Many organisations have structured their human capital strategies around classical conditioning—rewarding desired outcomes. Yes, managers are paid to exhibit intellectual and technical prowess, problem-solving abilities, and the ability to deliver results. However, when organisations fail to connect the rewards for outcomes with their human impact, a disconnect arises, leading to weak leaders and poor decision-making.

To overcome this challenge, we must reimagine operational systems and align them with rewards for positive behaviours and a healthy corporate culture to achieve success.

Reaching full leadership potential

Bridging the gap between the head and the heart requires cultivating self-awareness, empathetic leadership, active listening, and building a culture of belonging and psychological safety. Inspiring people, especially during challenging times, is a critical leadership quality.
With guidance and support, aspiring leaders can learn the skills and practices needed to empower and inspire their teams, effectively addressing their emotional needs. Experience has shown that closing the IQ-EQ gap requires a life-long commitment to self-awareness and self-correction. The first and easiest step is through candid conversations and feedback from peers. It is helpful to seek assistance from individuals with mature EQ, such as human capital specialists or inspirational leaders. For greater objectivity, consider consulting an independent leadership coach for guidance.

It is also an opportunity to assess one’s organisational culture and environment and note the behaviours it encourages and rewards. It may be the right time to reimagine a supportive culture where individuals can flourish and become inspiring leaders, tap into innovation, and achieve business success.

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