Leading While in the Muddled Middle: Lessons from Development Leadership

International development leadership is a mix of creating movements, managing people and budgets, and casting a constant vision of what a new reality could be. It is a world of emergence. The development leader is in what Michael Patton (2011) in Developmental Evaluation call’s “the muddled middle”. Local culture and organizational culture meet. Customary systems meet log-frames. At the meeting point is the International Development manager, consultant, or director. There is nothing like it in the world! Here are a few lessons I have learned living in the muddled middle.

1) Listen with your eyes, not only your ears. Listening with your eyes is vital for leading and managing in a way that improves the lives of those you lead and creates projects with high impact. What is not said, speaks more than what is. The glance down at the ground, the “yes” spoken with hesitancy in the eyebrows, colleagues not making eye contact. This is all communication. Learn what people are saying.

2) Understand power and how it affects everything you do. Managers, directors, and consultant have power. How people respond to power varies. Reasons for why power is present are of a wide range. Colonial pasts, economics of globalization, marketing of a global image of one race compared to another, and traditional positions in local cultural affect how people engage each other. How power is managed varies from culture to culture. The first step to work with power is to understand its presence. After you identify the web of power (as much as you can) you can increasing the potential of the people you lead.

3) Look for what is present, not only for what is missing. I have heard it (and said it myself) many times. “The people are not this way (insert a negative statement)” or “this place does not have (insert a negative statement)”. Shift your mindset to see what is present not what is missing. You and those you work with will be happier. You might realize that life is not as dire as you previously thought!

4) Learn to listen after the “formal” discussion. I was doing an evaluation of the success of a project. I had facilitated many “formal” interviews with community members and local / expat staff. The data I was getting was good but missed some richness of depth. Finally, as I was wrapping up a group exercise (that had taken about two hours) one of the participants said, “Can we now say what we want to say?” This took me by surprise. I had designed the whole time so people could tell me what they wanted to tell me (Well, I thought I had!). This conversation lead to two hours of the group being honest and open about stress they had dealt with and possible solutions to this stress. They had chosen me (as a go-between) to communicate to the leadership of the organization. Without this the leadership had no idea how the staff was coping. Learn to see this space as formal and be sensitive to the information you gain within it.

5) Include ALL levels of staff in your leadership. I have learned some of the most powerful lessons about what is happening in organizations through people who are not in the main leadership. People who work as drivers or cleaners who do not have the positions of authority but watch operations see gaps and successes. More often than not they have a history with the organization that few others have. People in these positions have proven vital to help their organization thrive.

6) Don’t make people say “yes”. Because we want a certain answer we ask questions in a way that lead to that answer. People that we manage feel obliged to answer questions with the “yes” we are looking (or pushing) for. The problem is there might be good reasons why the “yes” can’t happen in the way and timeline we are planning for it to happen. You want the yes in action, not in words only. Learn to ask questions that don’t lead towards the “yes” in words only. Questions need to reveal how to best get to the “yes”. Ask questions in ways that are neutral (which will show the true situation) and tell people directly what you want and see the non-verbal’s. When we ask for the “yes” it leaves both sides frustrated. When people give a verbal “yes” and a non-verbal “no” the manager wonders why the staff did not do what they said they would do. On the side of the staff, they did not feel they had space to communicate an alternative solution since what the manager wanted in the timeline they wanted would not be possible.

7) Learn to speak. Many times I have been able to move projects forward, understand why projects are moving slowly, or see the complexity of a situation because I tried to learn the language. Managers, consultants, and directors don’t like to have less power than others. Learning a language makes you feel like a child. However, learning the local language (even at a basic level) communicates a lot more than the words you learn.

There are many more lessons to be discussed. If we dive into leadership, ambiguity, and trust we could write a book! I would love to learn from others about leading in the muddled middle.

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