A good middler is a good leader
Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm recently featured a dinner party where the conversation was sagging and the party was dragging. Larry knew what the problem was, the person in the middle must be able to say, “I see you. I acknowledge you. I connect with you.” Every dinner party needs a person who can “middle”—someone who can keep the conversation going and engage people on both sides of the table.
Can your organization middle? Do you bring together different types of people to support your cause? Can you engage a wide range of people without causing a ruckus? Many nonprofits are the bridge between funders, researchers, and beneficiaries. Often, they are the only place where the industry leaders meet the people and practitioners. How do you engage these audiences?
Provide a safe space.
Don’t talk about politics. When we worked with International Rescue Committee I was surprised that they did not want to be political. How do you talk about safe havens and immigration policy without being political? Yet it was very important to them that they uphold the values of being people who care and not focus on the political divides that scorch real debate and prevent progress. We created a theme based on the idea that “we’re all in this together.” It wasn’t about labels, it was about being human. IRC provides a space to talk about difficult issues and offers opportunities to take real action.
Find common themes and causes.
Celebrate the work and the progress that your organization supports. Often foundations will fund researchers who lay the groundwork for breakthroughs. Introduce the people behind the science and tell the success stories of the lives that are touched by this work. It may sound obvious, but it’s amazing how abstract many nonprofits become when they don’t properly tell the stories of their beneficiaries.
A good middler is a sign of leadership.
It requires strength to handle the responsibility of being in a middle position and commanding the two sides of the table. Just as a good host makes everyone welcome, a good middler connects conversations, protects the underling from the overlord, draws in the uninitiated and introverted, and orchestrates a balance among everyone at the table.
Play the essential role.
In many cases, these groups of people would never meet. Your nonprofit can be the reason we all come together. At a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusiveness (DEI) event at our local school, there were skirmishes among some who wanted to focus on upholding the high quality of education and others who wanted to be sure everyone had access to that education. We could all agree on creating and maintaining a great education for our kids even if we had different ideas about what that meant. Instead of focusing on the different ideological positions, it’s better to agree on the big picture and then challenge each other to see how that goal may be truly accessible to all. This is hard work, but this is where a real community emerges. And often that only happens in a space defined by the ones in the middle.