About the Middle Path
Much of my work, as a coach and a trainer, involves helping leaders recognize and understand extreme mindsets and the impact of those mindsets on their work, those around them, and themselves. We then solve for ways to move toward more productive, integrative or "middle path" mindsets.
Middle Path Summary Table – The Integration of Extreme Mindsets
Why are you here?
Leaders who come to me for coaching often arrive saying these kinds of things…
"I swear it seems all I do is work, and yet I just don't feel like I’m accomplishing as much as I should."
"So, I’m in charge of this team now. And, sure, I have all these ideas, but how do I implement them? I’m trained as an [insert technical position], not as a manager."
"My boss (or colleague or teammate or partner) is impossible to work with, but what other choice do I have?"
"I'm ready to advance. Why won't they let me?"
"I have people on my team that aren’t achieving their potential. And they’re not meeting my expectations. And I'm at a loss for how to help them."
These stories are not uncommon. They are as familiar in the U.S. as they are in the U.K. They’re as common in India as they are in Israel. They trouble leaders in Kansas City, Kinshasa and Kuala Lumpur.
Furthermore, if we could travel back in time, I feel quite certain we’d hear similar stories from leaders of 100 years ago or even 1,000 years ago.
What are you willing to do to change your situation?
You have beliefs and values that have served you well in the past, and yet they may not be serving you well today. You must be willing to examine and challenge them.
Success can be your worst enemy. It may have reinforced ways of thinking that once worked for you, but now are sabotaging your efforts.
You must be willing to accept help. The best athletes and artists understand this. (Even some top surgeons have come to understand this.) It is difficult to see yourself from the outside. And it's difficult to challenge deeply held beliefs—beliefs you have forgotten are there.
You must be willing to make yourself vulnerable. You cannot perfectly protect yourself and have deep, productive relationships with others.
You must be willing to walk the “Middle Path.”
What is the Middle Path?
Walking the Middle Path is about finding a healthy point of integration between extremes. (See, for example, the table at the top of the page.) It's a concept that exists in many philosophies and is prominent in the writings of the Greek stoics and in Taoism.
Here’s an example of its application in management:
Sarah, like many managers, struggles with the task of delegation. Having had multiple ineffective managers during her career, her guidance in this area has been wildly inadequate. One of her managers tended to over-control and micro-manage. Another tended to abdicate—assigning tasks and then walking away.
Over time, Sarah discovered that the most effective managers find a healthy balance—a middle path—that takes into consideration the experience and personality of the employee, and the urgency and the importance of the task.
Note that this is not a compromise, but rather an integration—an integration of the healthy aspects of the extremes.
The healthy aspect of control is maintaining your personal accountability for the team’s performance. The healthy aspect of abdicating is giving your team member room to experiment and make mistakes.
Here’s another example of the Middle Path as it applies to relationships:
In an I–It relationship, one assumes that the other is an object rather than a human being. The “I” does not consider the wants, needs, or hopes of the other, and treats them in a purely instrumental way—as an object to be used, like my laptop or my coffee mug.
It–You is the reverse. Much like codependency, I defer and abdicate—essentially I disappear—and let myself become an object available to be used by the other.
Three types of relationships, according to Buber and Holmberg
The I–Thou relationship is based on mutuality, honor, and respect. In an I–Thou encounter, the “I” treats the other (Thou) as fully human (i.e., sacred, worthy, deserving) and considers h/her wants, needs, and hopes as being as valid and important as their own.
I – Thou is the integration, the healthy middle path.
There’s no single “right way”
The Middle Path approach does not assume there's “one right way.” Rather, there is a broad range of healthy approaches. And this perspective can be applied to many areas of life.
At the top of this page is a table showing some more examples.
Often, when leaders, teams, and organizations are under-performing, they are caught in extreme mindsets and using ineffective behaviors driven by these mindsets.
So, how do I help?
In its simplest form, if you engage with me as a coach or a trainer, I help you understand and become aware of these unproductive mindsets.
We explore ways to recognize them and then shift to healthier, more effective mindsets. You can then choose new and different behaviors—behaviors consistent with these healthier mindsets—and then practice and master them.
The journey from here to there
An Austrian economist once suggested that all human action begins with a “dissatisfaction gap.” Similarly, all consulting starts when the client realizes that the situation they have is not the situation they want -AND- they are not currently capable of bridging the gap.
Given the complexity of our organizational systems, solving any significant problem (i.e., closing any significant gap)—whether a serious technical problem, an interpersonal conflict, or a personal challenge—requires a journey through the following:
realizing we are stuck
understanding why we are stuck
investigating different approaches
preparing to act
If this seems familiar to you, you’re not alone.
Comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell found this process embedded in the stories of virtually every culture around the world. In his book The Hero of a Thousand Faces, he called it “The Hero’s Journey.”
The Hero's Journey as a Model for Solving Problems
Here’s a modified version of the story. (1) It starts in the upper-right in the state of apparent stability.
The Hero's Journey – Simplified
The “path” in Middle Path is the one the hero/heroine walks as she departs from her current state and heads towards a desired state. There is no guarantee that she will succeed. The trick is that there is more than just one path from here to there.
There are dangers in the paths of extremism—either on the aggressive side or passive side. Success lies in knowing the stages of the path and avoiding the seductive extremes.
In working with individuals and teams, I find this metaphor of the hero's journey is helpful for understanding how to solve problems effectively.
For the sake of simplicity, we can reduce the Hero’s Journey to only four stages—and note that it has become a model for solving problems.
The Hero's Journey as a model for solving problems
In the first stage, Sensing, you connect to your physical surroundings, to others, and to yourself.
Sensing helps you notice when an opportunity arises or a problem presents itself. Leaders tend to miss problems when their attention is too narrowly focused.
An important Middle Path mindset in this stage is dual- or systemic-attention—awareness of the human and technical dimensions. Over-attention to either can cause “systems blindness.”
The second stage, Seeking, is about collecting data, interpreting it, finding root causes, and determining what success looks like.
An important Middle Path mindset in this stage is the “integration of humility and confidence.” Humility opens your eyes to see your own flaws; confidence allows you to trust your instincts.
In the third stage, Solving, you systematically generate possible solutions, select a solution based on clear criteria, and create a robust action plan.
An important Middle Path mindset here is “integrating winning and success.” A focus on winning helps you pursue tangible goals with rigor. A focus on success reminds you of the higher purpose that motivates you.
In the final stage, Starting, you prepare to execute and take the first step(s), adjusting as necessary.
An important Middle Path mindset in this stage is “mutual accountability.” When you hold yourself accountable for decisions, it allows you to act rather than waiting for others. When you hold others accountable, it allows you to confidently reach out for help and create clear and strong working agreements.
When you’re ready to consider help on your hero’s or heroine’s journey, contact me, and let’s explore. I offer an initial hour for free—a time for us to chat about what you're looking for and get to know each other a bit. If there appears to be a fit between your needs and what I can offer, we'll contract for an initial block of coaching.
Please also consider joining us for our next public leadership workshop. It's a great way to gain an in-depth understanding of, and some practice with, middle path concepts, principles and frameworks.
(1) Most of the models on this page and much of the writing is based on the work of Chris Holmberg of Middle Path Consulting. Other influences include Robert Carkhuff, Margaret Wheatley, Ken Wilber and Joseph Campbell.
For more on the Middle Path framework and the value of coaching, see the following:
The Most Dangerous Leadership Traps (article)
To Be a Great Leader, Avoid These Mindsets (short article)