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Forging Leaders in the Radical Middle

by Dave Miller

leadership tension

“Moderation in everything.”

I heard that phrase from my mother more times than I can count. I remember it more from my teenage years than any other time. It might be because my memory of the childhood years are fading, but more than likely, it was because I needed to hear that most often when I was 15! Now as a father of teenagers, I see the value in the expression and annoy my own children with its repetition almost daily.

In a culture that values excess, the idea of moderation seems restrictive, even immoral. There will be the naysayers either way, but few would disagree that moderation is helpful when it comes to ideas and behaviors they see as socially taboo or morally wrong. But what about the idea of moderation even in the ideas or behaviors we see as good and right?

Take for instance the idea of passion. I would argue that passion drives necessary requirements for success like hard work, sacrifice, and consistency. A wood worker passionate about his craft can produce beautiful works of art, enduring structures for work and home, or a combination in ways that inspire and create noble success. So where does moderation find a place, if in the mentioned example, the results of the focused passion of the woodworker produces a worthy result? The question requires a view of more than just a moment or single result, but the longevity of the passion.

Anyone can be passionate about an idea or activity for a fleeting moment, but the true impact of a lasting and focused passion has incredible results. Therein we find the role of moderation. Avoid burnout while staying passionate over the long term.

Life is a balance. We need work, we need play, we need friends and family. Should you get to focused on one thing at the expense of the others, you may find success, but the pile of increasing failures in other areas will become a weight hung around your neck too great to carry. The key is moderation in everything, or as Mark and I like to say on the H3X Podcast, the radical middle.

The radical middle, however, is more than just moderation but certainly not less. At the core, the radical middle creates balance by intentionally living in the tension of competing goods. Instead of making a choice between two competing goods only a “right” or “wrong” decision, the radical middle seeks the benefit of both and attempts to live in the tension to limit the pitfalls of imbalance. The journey down the radical middle path is not exciting. It will not be as fast. It will receive less accolades. It will be disregarded. Until… the multiplicational impact of a resilient, long-suffering, anti-fragile band of committed, focused, and consistent leaders generates excitement, moves faster than anyone else, generates more attention, and can no longer be disregarded. The beauty of that moment will be the inability of the naysayers to slow the impact. The tattered old tactics wooing with indulgence and excess will prove impotent.

The radical middle is also not compromise. This is not to say that compromise has no place, though usually convictional leaders view compromise as a pariah only to be used as last resort, if ever. Compromise exists in the world of mutual exclusion. That is to say, winners and losers, good choices and bad choices, the lesser of two evils, starts and stops. The radical middle exists in the world of mutual inclusion. That is to say, when a choice need not separate friends, when differing contributions are committed to the same vision, when disagreements hone faithfulness, and/or when lack of unanimity on the “how” fosters shared conviction on the “why”, and hones the “who”.

The radical middle requires mutual devotion to the work. I’ve heard it said, “Where sweat and purpose are present, drama isn’t.” Accomplishing purpose will always require hard work. In all honesty the field is the great equalizer. Once you get started, the obstacles are no kinder to the smartest guy in the room. As a graduate with lots of letters behind my name, I am fully aware of how easily the hypotheticals and philosophical gab sessions can create drama leading to division. Yet, I am also fully aware of how a common task larger than a single individual may create intense moments, but the resulting breakthrough creates friends not enemies. I am also fully aware, as a business owner with a boiler involved in the process, that sweat alone can create drama faster than just about anything. When the purpose of the heat is lost, the power of the radical middle evaporates. Put the purpose first, stack the deck with hands ready to do the work, you will get heated, but you will create the secret sauce of the radical middle. Unfortunately, English doesn’t have a great word for this, but the Russians do, comrades. Brothers in arms to the end. As Captain America says to the Winter Soldier, “I’m with you to the end of the line.”

The radical middle requires devotion to a diverse community with a clear common vision. A beneficial radical middle needs the tug and pull of people who agree with them and disagree with them. Individuals in echo chambers get imbalanced. Moderation requires the check of another both in word and in example. Yet, the common vision, as clear “why”, also steers the community towards mutual inclusion, and challenges drift into ideas and behaviors inconsistent with the common vision. In a way, the radical middle has the potential to use the ‘don’t’ culture and the “do’ culture simultaneously to avoid the pitfalls of both extremes, creating leaders with thriving head, heart, and hands for the long-haul. Think of it this way, we devote ourselves to a community that passionately agrees with one another about the what + why AND anticipates passionately disagreeing with one another about the who, when, and where for the purpose of making each of us radically better together. Tim Keller wrote of this concept in Every Good Endeavor, “The specialization of roles is what compartmentalizes life. Generalists won’t be seen as experts, but the results will be the ‘radical middle’ that bring balance and flourishing more aptly than the narrow single lane pattern of focus.” So we socialize in a contribution, but fight against the need to self-affirm through thinking our contribution the most important in the community.

The radical middle requires devotion to multiplication. The tensions described above will never stay vibrant without fresh perspectives, challenges to the status quo, and new questions from emerging leaders AND time-tested experience, patient wisdom, and enduring truths from muddy-boot mentors. The quickest way to an echo chamber is a locked door. The quickest way to mission drift is a wide-open door.

Emerging and seasoned leaders alike must embrace the radical middle to forge catalytic leaders of conviction, character and action that last.


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