The Quiet Magic of Middle Managers

Nobody writes poems about middle managers. Nobody gets too romantic about the person who runs a department at a company, or supervises a construction crew, or serves as principal at a school, manager at a restaurant or deacon at a church. But I’ve come to believe that these folks are the unsung heroes of our age.

Amid a wider national atmosphere of division, distrust, bitterness and exhaustion, these managers are the frontline workers who try to resolve tensions and keep communities working, their teams united and relationships afloat. At a time when conflict entrepreneurs (see: Tucker Carlson) and demagogues are trying to rip society apart, I’m beginning to think that these members of the managerial class, spread across the institutions of society, are serving as the invisible glue that gives us a shot at sticking together.

So how do these managers work their magic? When I hear people in these roles talk about their work and its challenges, I hear, at least among the most inspiring of them, about the ways they put people over process, about the ways they deeply honor those right around them. A phrase pops into my mind: “Ethical leadership.” This is not just management. Something more deeply humanistic is going on. Let me give you a few features of ethical leadership:

Knowing that moral formation is part of the job. Here we turn to the gospel of Ted Lasso. When Lasso was asked about his goal for his soccer team, he replied: “For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.” The lesson is that if you help your people become the best versions of themselves, the results you seek will take care of themselves.

Creating a moral ecology. I love talking about my old boss Jim Lehrer. When I was starting out at “PBS NewsHour” and I said something he thought was smart, his eyes would crinkle with pleasure. When I said something he thought was crass, his mouth would turn down in displeasure. For 10 years I chased the eye crinkles and tried to avoid the mouth downturns.

Jim never had to say anything to me, but with those kinds of slight gestures he taught us how to do our jobs. He communicated: This is how we do things on the “NewsHour”; these are our standards. Jim is gone, but the standards and moral ecology he helped create live on. Morally healthy communities habituate people to behave in certain ways and make it easier to be good.

Being hyperattentive. The poet Mary Oliver wrote: “This is the first, wildest and wisest thing I know: that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness.” The leaders we admire are paying close attention to those who work with them. They are not self-centered but cast the beam of their care on others, making them feel seen and lit up. In how you see me, I come to see myself. If you cast a just and loving attention on people, they blossom.

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