The purpose of this paper is to report findings from a larger study into the role of middle leaders of change in New Zealand higher education. In total, ten middle leaders from the New Zealand higher education sector took part in a recent research project which examined successful change leadership in higher education. As part of that larger study, each middle leader answered questions about their views on being in the “middle” in their change leadership roles and their views on middle leadership in general. The ten middle leaders all described their place in their respective organisations in terms of being “caught in between”, or “sandwiched between” senior management to whom they were accountable, lecturers whom they described as colleagues or peers, and subordinates for whom they had some functional and often moral responsibility. The paper discusses the perceptions of being in the “middle” and how change leaders reconcile their position as a subordinate, an equal and a superior. Insight is gained into how educational leaders reconcile their position in the “middle” as they hold management responsibility for both academic and general staff who are hierarchically, beneath them; lead teams of colleagues in collegial decision making; and answer to higher authority in the form of senior organisational leadership.
The participant contributions of personal observations and unfolding real life stories which meld personal common sense with local meaning have formed a unique local ontology therefore allowing for a deeper understanding of the contributing factors toward being in the “middle”. Some of these perspectives have been used by the author’s own organisation in the development of leadership training for future organisational change, particularly those aspects concerning communication and participation that are tailored to meet the unique needs of management and staff. For middle change leaders the focussed examination of the working relationship between middle change leaders and staff groups might prove to be a rich area of further study. These relationships take a variety of forms, including where a staff member has risen through the ranks (off the shop floor as it were) to take on the mantle of leadership, or simply where there is a shared understanding based on subject or professional backgrounds which binds the two together. Further investigation into these relationships may provide perspectives that enable leaders to develop a greater understanding of how change occurs. The paper shows how the participants locate themselves as being “very much” in the middle in terms of line management of both resources and academic matters and often as being caught between competing imperatives, institutional dynamics and institutional structures.