Middles sometimes are sewer pipes. They receive well intentioned - but ill informed - instructions from above, and then mindlessly pass them on, with embarrassing and sometimes disastrous consequences for all. The suction of the sewer pipe is especially strong if the message from above comes from a particularly powerful Top, say for instance, the President of the United States.
In reading John Lewis Gaddis’ George F. Kennan: An American Life I came across a potential sewer pipe situation Kennan was facing.
The year is 1943. World War II is raging. Kennan is a Foreign Service officer stationed in Portugal a, country struggling to maintain a delicate neutrality. Kennan receives an instruction “by direction of the President.” Top of the tops! The culture in the Foreign Service does not encourage questioning instructions, especially those coming “by direction of the President.” But Kennan does the unthinkable; he refuses to carry out the order. Using his closeness to the situation and his independent judgment, he knows that the message, if sent, is likely to infuriate the Portuguese Prime Minister, jeopardize his already fragile position, and threaten US access to much needed air bases on the Portuguese Azores. Kennan asks for permission to meet with the President to explain his action. The message somehow makes its way to the President who asks to speak with Kennan. The outcome: the President gives Kennan freedom regarding how to conduct these sensitive negotiations with Prime Minister Salazar. From being a potentially mindless Middle, Kennan becomes a Top with critical responsibilities.
Gaddis points out how “During the Azores base negotiations, Kennan violated at least four rules any one of which could have got him sacked from the Foreign Service.” Yet the outcomes were positive and, in the end, he received personal congratulations from the US Secretary of State for his sensitive and competent handling of the situation. Not surprisingly, Kennan’s peers had a less sanguine reaction - “disapproval bordering on sheer horror.” He was judged by some as being “very foolish and lucky to get away with it.”
There are lessons from this event. Middles regularly face potential sewer pipe situations. The instructions come and you pass them on. That’s what Middles do. Unfortunately, that’s what Middles may do blindly and reflexively without examining the instructions and considering the consequences they are likely to have. This is what it means to be a Mindless Middle. The challenge for Middles is at all times to maintain their independence of thought and action, and then to have the courage to act on that judgment.
That’s what George F. Kennan did, and that’s a possibility for all of us when we’re in the middle.
I’ll leave the reactions of Kennan’s peers for another day.
For more on Middles – mindless and mindful – see Between a Rock and A Hard Place and Other Joys of Working in the Middle.