The ‘weak middle’ is what I like to call the Sri Lankan leadership crisis. And I am not talking about politics, even though you may draw parallels if you wish. I am talking about business–small, medium and large businesses of Sri Lanka. I am not ignoring good business leaders; there are some, but surely less [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

How strong is your middle management?


The ‘weak middle’ is what I like to call the Sri Lankan leadership crisis.

And I am not talking about politics, even though you may draw parallels if you wish. I am talking about business–small, medium and large businesses of Sri Lanka.

I am not ignoring good business leaders; there are some, but surely less than we need as a nation. But our leadership pipeline is abysmal. Ask any Sri Lankan CEO or even COO whether he or she has all the confidence that their second in command can take over the job and do it as well and you’d get an emphatic no in most cases. Ask any division head in a big or small company and you’ll get nearly the same results. There are exceptional companies, but they are the exception; not the rule.

It is not always about ego-these leaders are not delusional. They are being realistic. We do have a management problem mostly in the middle.

One reason is our poor management development efforts-hence that weak middle. This is the root cause for a lot of issues. Even the best bosses will have to draw their reigns and go slowly if they are being supported by a less than superb team. It is not just the superior cars and the talented racing car drivers that determine the win. The pit stop crew and their efficiency also makes a difference; especially in a highly competitive environment.

Three Leadership Pathologies

On LinkedIn, an article titled Why Leadership Development Doesn’t Produce Good Leaders by Ray B. Williams talks about a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study that refer to three “pathologies” that may account for leadership failures.

The first pathology is: “the ownership is power mind-set.” Entrenched ways of managing using mostly a command and control style is patently unsuited for managing knowledge workers and service based companies in the 21st century. The way I see it, such mindsets are grossly unsuited for managing today’s workers as people have choices. They will not put up with things previous generations put up with from their employers.

I’ll quote Williams in discussing the second ‘pathology’ because this is what prompted me to write this article:

“The second pathology identified in the MIT study is the “productization of leadership development,” or in other words, leadership development is linked to the products of the organisation, rather than the overarching problems that need to be solved. Which often leads to quick fixes. This is frequently seen as a leadership programme based on a best-selling book or off-the-shelf leadership programme purchased from a consultant. The result frequently ends up in the flavour of the month approach to training programme, which are often frequently forgotten in a short time. During tough economic times, top executives decide to curtail investments in leadership development, ushering in the return of a more Darwinian model of leadership – ‘the cream will rise to the top’. Employees then become cynical about the company’s dedication to leadership development. High-potentials hesitate before investing their energy in developmental initiatives; some of the best walk away from the organisation, and others do not reach their potential for lack of strong developmental experiences. In this scenario, there are no winners.”

The third pathology is one of “make believe metrics.” As Williams points out “Most organisations require accountability for their expenditures, which is often driven by metrics. Today there are scorecards for virtually everything, including leadership development. However, the MIT study concludes, the use of metrics for the effectiveness of leadership development is leading them astray”.

In the US or here in Sri Lanka, most metrics fail to address critical aspects of leadership that are essential for success. Often, you’d note, that it is not the lack of intelligence, talent or capability that is the problem.

What I find most lacking are four things: sensitivity, including sensitivity of context, soft skills and capacity for analytical and deep thinking.

Sensitivity and contextual awareness

Should I call this emotional intelligence? No one who lacks the humility and humanity to coax the best out of other human beings will ever become a great manager, a great leader.

Sensitivity is important in one-to-one dealings. But it becomes critical when setting rules, regulations and business policies that affect hundreds and thousands of people. You cannot remain oblivious to the implications of your impractical rules.

I watch Undercover Boss, a reality show where bosses go undercover in their own organizations. In one episode, a boss of a delivery company had recently tightened rules restricting time available to employees between jobs. The woman driver of the delivery truck, who he works with undercover, a very dedicated employee, had little time for toilet breaks as a result. She’s forced to use a bucket in the back of the truck just to keep up with tight schedules. The boss in this case was literally reduced to tears; especially when he sees how his employee treats customers with loving care. She even takes time to hug an older woman with mental disabilities, explaining later that her hug may be the only meaningful human interaction for that woman that day.

This is what I mean by understanding context. Can such things happen on your watch? Realistic awareness of context is extremely important in all aspects of business life.

Soft skills

These were an essential part of the manager’s tool box when I finished my MBA in the mid-1990s. Their value has been recognized for decades, way before the concept of emotional intelligence and the need for EQ came into popular use. Ever read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People? That is what I am talking about. Soft skills help you deal with other humans effectively; it is as simple as that. To add icing on top of your soft skills portfolio, try reading Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman.

Capacity for analysis and deep thinking

Sad to say, a lot of people lack this capacity and worse, see no value in it. If they do possess it, they sure have a poor way of showing that.

Our brains are use-it-or-lose-it organs. If you don’t develop your brain to do such challenging and in my opinion, rewarding things, you will never get there. You cannot spend your middle management life in a non-thinking zombie-hood and wake up to become a COO and CEO with deep thinking capability. You need to practise to get to a decent level where you are a skilled analyst and decision maker. Mastery takes time and effort and application.

I am happy to note that the MIT report I mentioned also recognises the need for all three above, but expresses that in terms of soft skills, collaborative behaviour and strategic thinking.

Why are we this way?

One reason is that we do not care enough to be any other way: You cannot become excellent at something you don’t care about. You cannot master it without effort, commitment and caring. People these days seem to believe that there can be gain without pain. If gain is all you want, buy a lottery ticket; forget a career.

Secondly we have forgotten the valuable lessons on sensitivity and soft skills our parent taught us: Smile; say please; say thank you; look at the person’s face when talking; acknowledge and respond when someone talks to you; be nice; share your toys; give the swing to the other kid after playing a while; it hurts others when you hit, pinch or push just as it hurts you when they get back.

These are all lessons I am teaching my preschooler every day. But I see a lot of young adults, executive, managers and even CEO types who have forgotten these basic lessons. And it’s not just the young either. Arrogance and ignorance are not age-limited. A good job, a degree or professional qualifications or success should not make you forget these life lessons.

In The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer point out that little things matter. The biggest thing that matter to everyone at work is making meaningful progress in their work. Not only that, even a minor thing as asking about a person’s day, taking time to visit their division or cubicle and smiling can make a big difference to the inner life of employees.

Remember that acronym for TEAM? Together Everyone Achieves More. But smiling at your co-workers and helping them make even the smallest progress can have a big impact on someone’s inner work life.

And this does not apply to just leaders. It applies to everyone. I highly recommend this book to everyone, regardless of your place in the organisation.

Thirdly, many are obsessed with busy-ness; not really work. We can blame busy lives, overburdened schedules and being hyper-connected (for whatever purpose). We are stressed out and overloaded in so many ways. Some may be actually overburdened at work. But most are overwhelmed by their own choices; hardly out of necessity.

You can give any amount of explanations. But if you are an adult, you have choices. It is your individual responsibility to take time to sit quietly, contemplate, think; to figure out your priorities and to improve decision-making. It is your duty to remember basics of human interactions, collaboration and team skills you learnt in the sand box. Only you can make yourself a great manager or leader; not even a world class MBA can change you if you don’t make the effort.

‘Sleeping on problems’ improves your creativity, as research shows. Forget sleeping on it, how many executives actually take the time to actually analyse problems, to seek solutions? No wonder we end up with substandard solutions to practically everything.

The good news is that all this can be changed Soft skills, emotional intelligence, analytical, problem solving and thinking skills can be taught and learnt. In the end though, what matters is practice. Everyone should take the time to hone their skills. Don’t complain when leadership resorts to outside recruitment and bypasses you for a promotion. Give them a reason to promote you; or as Cal Newport says in his book, become “So Good They Can’t Ignore You”!

For top management teams who find their middle management pipeline dry, it’ your responsibility to irrigate it with the right people. Leaders and managers are made, not born. Anyone with a growth mindset can become a decent enough manager, and a decent leader. This is why long term management development is carefully designed to equip your people with skills that matter in the long run. And why ad-hoc, flavour of the month “productization of leadership development” fails to produce results.

(The writer is a Chartered Management Accountant by profession, a freelance trainer with nearly two decades of experience and a ghostwriter, currently writing a book about success and related topics for a client in the US. She could be contacted on

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