“Leading from the Middle” Stresses Empathy, Strategy for Business Students


Photographs courtesy of Giang Nguyen


More than 60 College of Business students gathered in the Public Affairs Center on Oct. 4 for “Leading from the Middle,” a seminar on middle management taught by adjunct professor Kevin Purcell. A  prominent  UIS  alumnus, Purcell retired as the Senior Manager of Organization Development at Microsoft Corp. before returning to teach at UIS in 2008. He also has done consulting work with the  Gates Foundation and Memorial  Health Systems of Central Illinois. The seminar set out to accomplish two goals: developing a better understanding of human systems and contemplating leadership possibilities in “the middle space.”

    Purcell defines an organization as “a collection of ordinarily nice people who do terrible things to each other with good intentions.” Within any organization, there are people working at the top, middle, and bottom tiers of power, Purcell explained to participants. He said challenges in communication between the levels are often caused by blindness towards others’ experiences. “Tops survive in a world of complexity and responsibility,” Purcell said. “Bottoms survive in a world  of  vulnerability  and  disregard.” 

    Middle managers are perhaps in the most precarious position, according to Purcell, because they’re torn between the demands of those above and below them.  To demonstrate this point, students participated in an activity where four people were assigned to be upper management, ten were middle managers and the rest were bottom-level employees.

     After the activity was over, Purcell asked students at each level to describe their experience. Those at the top used words such as distant, powerful, and pressured to describe their role, whereas bottoms felt uninspired,  frustrated, and overlooked.  Middle managers described their experience as unsupported, stressful and overwhelming. Purcell applied this exercise to his own work experience, describing the uncertainty that is present at all levels of success:

          “The first ten years I was at Microsoft, I had 17 office moves. I never moved on my own volition. Someone else moved me,” Purcell said. “I was vulnerable, whether I felt it or not.”

     During the lecture component of the seminar, Purcell offered advice on how to better function in middle management. He told students that, in the midst of chaos, it’s easy to take things personally, make up stories about others, get mad, or get even.

    Instead, he said, the best way to be valuable to an organization is to act strategically and to have empathy. “The middle space is the only part of an organization that understands the experiences of tops and bottoms,” Purcell said, adding that, instead of acting as a conduit, middle managers should help facilitate conversation between upper management and lower-level employees.