Book Review: Leading from the Middle

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When it comes to business books, middle managers are “the few, the fatigued, the forgotten.” Hardly anyone points out the good work they do, even though middle managers are essential to the success of any organization. I bought Leading from the Middle: A Playbook for Managers to Influence Up, Down, And Across the Organization by Scott Mautz because it was about middle managers.

Also, Scott Mautz, wrote several highly rated books. Leading From the Middle racked up a bevy of five-star reviews and no one who read it posted a negative review on Amazon. I snapped up a copy and set to reading.

Why I Was Disappointed

I was disappointed because Leading from The Middle didn’t have several things that I look for in a good business book.

I look for stories and examples. They make learning memorable and aid the reader’s ability to put recommendations into practice. Leading From the Middle had almost no stories and plenty of exhortation. Exhortation is like a lecture. It may be interesting, even entertaining, but it’s hard to pull out the pieces that you can use and then actually use them.

Another thing I look for in a business book is actionable advice and aids to understanding. I want recommendations to be specific. An exhortation to set boundaries might be good advice, but it’s not useful advice. An author needs to put details of implementation on the skeleton of an idea to be effective.

I look for examples and research support. Leading From the Middle has precious few examples and most of them are general. There is a good amount of research support, but some of it is frustratingly non-specific.

Those were the big reasons that I was disappointed in the book. There were also some small irritations.

If You Like Lecture, You’ll Like This Book

Leading From the Middle is almost all exhortation with few stories and examples. It’s like a lecture. Lectures are good for the lecturer; the work is straightforward and easy. But lecture is not good for someone who wants to learn. There, you need details and the ability to try things out. Leading From the Middle has precious little of that.

If You Want to Be Overwhelmed with Things to Do, You’ll Like This Book

Mautz tells you there are 21 roles that middle managers must play. That’s a daunting enough number, but each of those roles can include many things you must learn to do well.

When Mautz gets down to the key skills, he offers this:

“I wanted to pinpoint this, so I interviewed or surveyed 1,000 others-oriented leaders leading from the middle. I asked them to step back and describe their job when it was being done at its best. Very clear themes emerged. In fact, I kept hearing one word in particular, over and over.”

The word is” amplify,” and Mautz turns it into an acronym to help you remember all the things you need to do. Here it is.

A is for Adapt. It has six of what Mautz calls “skillbuilds.”

M is for Meshing and has three skillbuilds.

Political savviness [sic] has four questions.

L is for Locking in, and it offers Four Cs of Hyperawareness. Each of the Cs has several things you’re expected to master.

Influence has six “Ninja Skill Builds.” There are several things under each of those.

Fostering compromise has five things.

You set the tone has only three things, including an Attitude Anthem.

Phew! That’s more than 30 things to master.

Other Things That Bugged Me

Mautz presents most of his research very well. But on too many occasions, he resorts to something that just pushes my rant button. He uses the phrase “Research shows” without giving us any footnote or sourcing. He uses the phrase “Research shows” 14 times. Only two of those have more information so we can follow up and learn about the research.

The style of the writing seems to change a lot from one place to another. It seems like chunks of the book were cut and pasted from other work or notebooks created at different times. I’ve already mentioned one of the examples of that. In one place, we have “skillbuilds,” as one word. In the same section, we have “Ninja Skill Builds,” three words, all capitalized.

There’s also a lot of negotiating and setting boundaries and making sure people understand, which turns each role into even more things to do and master and pay attention to.

In A Nutshell

There’s a ton of advice, but no guidance about what’s most important or how to decide what’s important. Scott Mautz knows a lot. I think this material might be great in a classroom or another place where he could respond to questions or offer examples. Alas, this book may indeed have just the thing you need to learn right now, but you’ll have trouble digging it out and putting it to use. Unless you’re willing to do that hard work, give this book a pass.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on GoodReads.


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