Here’s a Thought About . . . Mid-Level Leadership Development

By Tom Roth, Michael Leimbach, PhD

This is the second installment in Wilson Learning’s “Here’s a Thought About . . .” leadership development series. These brief explorations look at challenges faced by L&D professionals and offer thoughts, trends, and tips for preparing well-equipped leaders to lead organizations forward from a new workplace.

Given the increasing pressures and dynamics of today’s business environment, a more intense spotlight is being placed on the role of mid-level leaders as a key driver for organizational sustainability and success.

The focus of the second edition of “Here’s a Thought About . . .” is to shed some light on the top challenges HR leaders are experiencing today with enhancing the effectiveness of mid-level leaders and to offer our thoughts on developing vital, vibrant mid-level leadership skills and character.

While successful development of mid-level leaders is seen as a high priority, performance is another story. Research by Wilson Learning Worldwide and Training magazine shows that only 54% of organizations think their development efforts are effective—and only 12% see them as highly effective.

Why such a struggle? Our research shows that mid-level leadership is a critical transition point. First-level leaders’ success is primarily driven by their tactical leadership skills—their ability to get work done through other people. However, mid-level leadership is a transition toward a leadership character-dominated success story.

The Struggle in Heroic Management

While first-level leaders struggle to rely less on their functional credibility in order to establish their leadership credibility, mid-level leaders need to shift their focus from getting work done through others toward getting work done with others in a way that grows their ability to do it themselves. There is an underlying human tendency that leaders struggle with—once they are in a position of power with a greater span of control and authority as a mid-level manager, it can be hard to give that up and empower others.

Many mid-level leaders believe that since they are accountable for results—getting the job done right—they need to take charge, assign tasks, coordinate work, control the budget, and make all key decisions, using the one-to-one skills that worked at the first-level leadership position. On one hand, this sounds pretty desirable, doesn’t it? A real take-charge leader.

We refer to this take-charge approach as heroic management. The leader views his or her purpose as achieving specific, short-term business objectives by getting the work done through people. The heroic manager feels he or she must have all the answers, be in control, be responsible for results and coordination, and control everything. As you can imagine, direct reports on the receiving end of this management style feel disempowered, devalued, demotivated, or simply comply, at best.

Mid-level leaders must move beyond the heroic manager approach and shift their mindset from “getting work done through people” to “getting the work done with people in a way that builds their ability to do it themselves.”

Leadership Growth Skills

While first-level leadership development requires acquisition and mastery of one-to-one survival skills, mid-level leadership development necessitates more one-to-group, or team development, skills.

At Wilson Learning, we have coined these as Leadership Growth Skills—skills that help others grow their own skills and abilities, help the group or department grow their collective capacities and responsibilities, and, ultimately, sustain and grow organizational capacity and agility.

Leadership Growth Skills

  • Providing direction through mission and vision
  • Fostering shared responsibility
  • Establishing mutual influence relationships
  • Facilitating team problem-solving
  • Facilitating team goal-setting
  • Developing cross-functional collaboration
The supreme quality of leadership is integrity.

— Dwight D. Eisenhower

Leadership Character Development

If mastery of Leadership Growth Skills is what effective mid-level leaders achieve, developing strong Leadership Character is the intentionality behind executing growth skills with teams and individuals. It is the “why I lead” and reflects a leader’s personal leadership philosophy, what the leader values, and what the leader believes about leadership. Leadership Character that demonstrates a strong code of morality—integrity and ethics—is powerful, and it is palpable.

Consider data from the 2020 Leadership Development Survey Wilson Learning conducted with Training magazine. When we asked participants to indicate the top five character elements important to their organization, over 50 percent indicated that Integrity/Ethics and Empowerment of Others were the two most critical character elements.

Interestingly, three of the top four elements—Empowerment of Others, Nurturing Others’ Growth, and Empathy/
Compassion—all address how leaders need to help others grow and develop.

Clearly, a critical element of leadership development is the degree to which leaders show concern for the growth and fulfillment of their employees, as well as the integrity of their actions and decisions.

— Michael Leimbach, PhD, VP of Global Research and Development, Wilson Learning Worldwide

Vibrant, vital leadership development happens when leaders are consciously competent in leading themselves—they successfully lead others because they effectively execute leadership skills and they fully understand the why of what they are doing.

— Tom Roth, COO, Wilson Learning Worldwide

Tom Roth

Tom Roth is Chief Operating Officer of Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc. (U.S.) and President of Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc. (Japan). With more than 40 years of experience developing and implementing human performance improvement solutions, Mr. Roth is responsible for the strategic direction and business performance of Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc. operations. In addition, he leads the global marketing services and R&D solutions group, which is responsible for the research and development of all solutions and position papers. Mr. Roth assists global executive leadership teams with issues related to employee engagement, leadership development, strategy alignment, and business transformation. Before assuming his current role, he was President of the global R&D and solution development groups and also served as President of Wilson Learning Corporation.

Mr. Roth has extensive experience developing and implementing human performance improvement solutions. He is coauthor of the book Unplugged: How Organizations Lose Their Energy and How to Get It Back, coauthor of the book Creating the High-Performance Team, and is published in numerous business publications. Mr. Roth is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences and client events, presenting on a wide variety of issues including leadership, employee engagement, change, and strategy implementation.

Michael Leimbach, PhD

Michael Leimbach, PhD, is a globally recognized expert in instructional design and leadership development. As Vice President of Global Research and Development for Wilson Learning Worldwide Inc., he has worked with numerous Global 1000 organizations in Australia, England, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and throughout the United States. Over more than 30 years, Dr. Leimbach had developed Wilson Learning’s diagnostic, learning, and performance improvement capabilities, published over 100 professional articles, coauthored four books, been Editor-in-Chief for the highly acclaimed ADHR research journal, and is a frequent speaker at national and global conferences. He also serves on the ISO Technical Committee (TC232) on Quality Standards for Learning Service Providers and on the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development Dean’s Advisory Board.