The Middle Ages

    February 26, 2006

What if leadership didn’t originate from the top of an organization, society or ecosystem, but from its middle?

Thanks to a flattening Earth, a declining trust in hierarchy, plus the rising prominence of mid-level stars, we’re entering such an era. I call it “The Middle Ages.” Business and society will never be the same. (It’s nothing like the last Middle Ages either.)

The Internet, in particular consumer generated media and search, is at the heart of this societal change. Consider The Long Tail. It is actually a byproduct of the Middle Ages. The concept here is that there’s a glut of goods in the middle that are not hits, nor flops. They might be books on or bloggers and podcasters. What’s important is that they are now thriving because they are easier to find thanks to Internet search and recommendation engines – be they human or computer-powered.

However, the Middle Ages is actually far bigger than the Long Tail. It surrounds it. It’s about technology-driven societal change that elevates people in the middle, not just goods. As the Edelman Trust Barometer showed us, people increasingly seek out each other as trusted sources. This is because leadership is shifting from the top to the middle.

Consider the following examples…

* Microsoft’s Robert Scoble, a mid-level employee, has twice as many Google results as his CEO, Steve Ballmer

* Fortune magazine recently shined the cover spotlight on 12 Fortune 500 leaders who are not in the CEO position within their organization, but have attained mass influence

* Books like The 360 Leader are hitting the store shelves. These titles help employees become more influential organizational leaders, no matter what their position, by leading up, across and down

* David Sifry talks about the rising importance of the blogosphere’s Magic Middle” in shaping the attention curve in particular niches. Niche citizen journalism in the middle is changing media.

These are just a few. There are countless others when you look at politics, media, business, entertainment and on and on. The top dogs don’t innovate or lead as much as they used to. The hotspots of innovation now come from the middle because of the Internet. This is a critical change. What does this mean for us? The Middle Ages should be factored into every marketing/communications program and business decision because it’s here to stay for at least the foreseeable future.

Steve Rubel is a PR strategist with nearly 16 years of public relations, marketing, journalism and communications experience. He currently serves as a Senior Vice President with Edelman, the largest independent global PR firm.

He authors the Micro Persuasion weblog, which tracks how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the public relations practice.