Leading From The Murky Middle

by Nathan Lino May 14, 2015

Have you ever seen a talented, promising, but inexperienced leader attempt to lead? There are moments of greatness and moments of boneheaded moves as the emerging leader hones the diamond of their gifting with the sandblaster of experience. Sometimes the boneheaded moves are costly and you see, for example, young pastors losing their supporters or even getting quickly fired from churches.

When this happens, the younger leader often has no idea what happened. Where did it all go wrong? He is certain he made the ideal decision, so why did people stop following him?

I’ve learned leading well is difficult no matter how many classes you attend, books you read, and conferences you frequent. I’ve also learned the secret as to why effective leadership is so difficult…leadership takes place in the “murky middle.”

There are two unalterable points of reference that face leaders; both of which make fools of any leader who dares forget or denies their existence: the ideal and reality.

The goal of leadership is to strengthen the reality of a situation towards the ideal. A leader must recognize that there is a clear ideal, be it the vision for the organization, a principle, a virtue, or a standard of holiness. But, the leader must also have a clear view of current reality as this is where the followers are. There can be a vast gap between reality and the ideal. This is where many young leaders go awry. They think in the vacuum of the ideal, because after all, that’s what the bible says is best or so said a professor in school. The young leader proceeds to act based on the ideal and and forgets the people are living in reality. If the gap between reality and the ideal is too far, well you can see how the young leader thinks he is leading, but there is actually nobody following…the followers are all still back in current reality. This is where the tension mounts between the leader and the followers: the further the gap between the ideal and reality, the further the rubberband stretches that ties the leader to the people. When the rubberband snaps, the leadership relationship is broken.

Until the ideal becomes reality, the ideal is merely the destination, not the point from which the leader can lead. The leader has to lead from a point somewhere in the murky middle between current reality and the ideal. This is what makes leadership so difficult. The murky middle is exactly that – hazy, undefined, and often subjective. There is no instruction manual for the murky middle. You can read books, watch other leaders, and have all the gifting in the world, and still find leadership really difficult. It is often like cooking by feel instead of a written recipe. Leadership does require gifting and talent, but it also requires wisdom, patience, discernment, discretion, and conviction.

If you are called and gifted to lead, you would do well to remember there are two points of reference set before you–the current reality and the future destination. Stay in the current reality with the people and you won’t effect change. But, get to the destination while the people are still in the current reality and you will find you are a leader in name only. You have to lead from the murky middle.

Originally published at Nathan Lino's official site.


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