Three Lessons for the Messy Middle

If you walk into my bathroom right now, you will find a drying fan, spackling, and no faucet. 

Saturday night, I was in and out of the bathroom several times while trying to get the old faucet out of the sink. Each time, I entered with a different tool, and my wife looked at me like, “What’s up? Should we be calling someone?”

And finally, success!

So, it’s a mess, but it is PROGRESS.

Leadership is often about leading people through projects to make progress.

And most projects go through a messy middle. 

In the messy middle, things often look and feel worse than when you started, and that’s when leadership becomes critical. 

My bathroom project reminds me of three things every leader should do in the messy middle.

1. Remember the Beginning

In the messy middle, it is easy to think, “I should have just left this alone.”

I rarely take “before pictures” of my home projects, thus, when I get in the messy middle, I have lost the reason I started. 

The next time you are starting a much-needed project, finish this sentence, “I am going to ____________, because ___________________________.” 

(I am going to remodel this bathroom because I am tired of the faucet leaking, and we have company coming. I am going to reorganize our file system because I am tired of our team wasting time looking for what they need. Etc.)

Remembering the beginning answers the “why did I start this” question.

2. Overdose on encouragement

Right now, our team is in the midst of a lot of changes. I just left a meeting where I outlined for a team member what I think her new role will look like. She’s great and willing to do whatever we need, but it’s also hard for many of us to deal with change. 

So, it reminded me that in the messy middle, one of my roles is to be a cheerleader for our team. Primarily reminding them that even though outwardly we aren’t seeing the results,  eventually, these changes will pay dividends. 

3. Celebrate progress

I rarely watch home improvement shows. They annoy me. The house is a piece of garbage. Cue the B-roll of sawing, hammering, and spackling, and, voila, a brand new house in 60 minutes of television time. 

It’s a lie, and everyone only celebrates when the project is done.

I discovered today that our brains actually release feel-good chemicals when we celebrate the progress, not just the outcome. 

Let’s be honest: life and leadership can be a slog. If you only celebrate outcomes, it’s not going to be good for anyone. 

So in the messy middle work in some lead indicators that you celebrate along the way. 


Brian Rutherford

Brian Rutherford is the Director of Operations for Leadercast. Brian has been telling stories professionally for twenty-five years. Stories that inspire people to see themselves and the world differently. Stories that challenge people to take meaningful action in the world.

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