The Importance of Middle-Range Leadership

Peace building happens at different levels of society: at the top between leaders; at the grassroots, among ordinary citizens; and in the middle, amongst people who occupy leadership positions in sectors such as education, business, agriculture, and health. This middle level is especially important to peace building, peace builder and scholar John Paul Lederach asserts, because they connect the top and bottom levels, while also cutting horizontally across the opposing sides of conflict. Not surprisingly, Lederach and many others believe that this middle level has the greatest potential to bring people together and build peace.

The middle-range leadership includes ethnic and religious leaders, academics, and leaders of various nongovernmental organization. In many cases, middle-range leaders are also part of a broader network that links together various religious groups, academic institutions, or humanitarian organizations.They are typically well recognized and respected within this broader network, and also enjoy the respect of the people from their own region. Insofar as they are respected and known both inside and outside the region, they have a remarkable capacity to influence the decisions of policymakers.

This middle position's access to the top, and to the grassroots gives them a special advantage that people at the other levels lack. While they can communicate with elite readers, they are not bound by the political calculations that govern decisions made at the top level. Similarly, they witness the circumstances of those living at the grassroots level, but are not themselves encumbered by these survival demands.

In addition, the position of these middle-range leaders is not based on political or military power, but rather derived from ongoing relationships. These relationships may be professional, institutional, or formal, or simply be a matter of friendship and acquaintance. Such leaders are rarely in the public spotlight, and do not rely on visibility to exert influence.[3] For this reason, they have the ability to act and move with much more freedom than the top-level leaders.

Finally, mid-level leaders tend to be connected with many influential people and be part of a network of relationships that cuts across the identity divisions within a society. By virtue of belonging to a professional association, for example, they may have preexisting relationships with those on the opposite side of the conflict. This gives them a unique capacity to transform enemy relationships and build peace.

Middle-Range Approaches to Peacebuilding

Throughout the 1980s, multiple wars raged in Central America. One of the provisions of the Central American peace accords was the establishment of an extensive network of national, regional, and local peace commissions. In Nicaragua, these commissions were typically composed of nongovernmental leaders, whose job was to prepare and then facilitate negotiation and conciliation efforts. These mid-level leaders would begin to build an infrastructure capable of sustaining advances towards peace.

Many believe that mid-level leadership can be cultivated to play an instrumental role in conflict resolution, and to form the networks and institutions that advance reconciliation. Three central middle-range approaches to peace are problem-solving workshops, conflict-resolution training, and peace commissions. All three approaches help to establish a relationship- and skill-based infrastructure for sustaining the peace building process.

First, mid-level leaders may serve as important participants in problem-solving workshops. These workshops typically focus on interactive problem solving, and provide the opportunity for individuals who unofficially represent the conflicting parties to collaborate and analyze their shared problems. The problem-solving approach often involves informal, weeklong meetings that bring representatives of each side together to reframe their conflict. This allows parties involved in deep-rooted or violent conflict to interact directly with their adversaries, develop alternatives to the use of coercive force, and generate new options for conflict resolution.[5] Because the workshops are informal and off the record, they provide "a politically safe space for floating and testing ideas.

Mid-level leaders are typically invited to such workshops because of their knowledge of the conflict and their proximity to key decision makers. They are in a position to influence the opinion of elite leaders, who are not invited. Such meetings do not aim to replace the formal negotiations that these top-level leaders engage in, but rather to deepen parties' understanding of the conflict and its possible solutions. Problem-solving workshops typically involve a third-party team, which acts to convene the parties, facilattate the meeting, and help the parties to analyze their shared problems and interact effectively. Various recent peace processes have featured these sorts of behind-the-scenes problem-solving meetings.

The second type of approach to peace building that typically centers on mid-level leaders is conflict-resolution training. In the conflict-resolution field, training aims both to educate people and raise their awareness, as well as to give them tools necessary for dealing with conflict effectively. Participants in training programs develop an understanding of how conflict operates, its general dynamics, and constructive ways of generating solutions. In many cases, training programs teach people the analytical, communication, negotiation, or mediation skills that are needed to deal with conflict.

While such training can be helpful to leaders at a variety of levels, it is most strategically useful at the middle level. In some cases, extensive training programs are developed to provide a conceptual framework and skills for dealing with a particular conflict. This enables mid-level leaders to develop their peace building capacities. Such training sessions also serve a "convening function," and bring people from different sides of the conflict together to share their perceptions of conflict, analyze their own roles in it, and develop approaches to advance reconciliation.

The third type of peace building activity involving mid-level leaders is the formation of peace commissions. Peace commissions often feature prominent individuals representing different sides of the conflict, and can exist at both the regional and national level. They are established in many cases to prepare and then facilitate negotiation and conciliation efforts between opposing parties.[10] Mid-range leaders often carry out the insider-partial mediation that is central to the success of these peace commissions. They are intermidiares from within the conflict setting who enjoy the trust and confidence of one party, but are able to work with other intermediaries as a team to conduct balanced mediating work.[11] These leaders are also often able to use their personal and institutional connections to move towards a successful solution to the conflict.

In some cases, these mid-range leaders play an integral role in regional and local peace committees. For example, various religious leaders might work together to maintain communication centers, or develop other institutional capacities that can help to monitor and preempt community violence.[12] The sociopolitical transformation envisioned by top-level elites becomes a reality, in many cases, only by virtue of the transition processes instituted by mid-level leaders.

Mid-level peace building activities thus range from problem solving to conflict-resolution training to the establishment of teams and commissions. The middle-range leaders involved are often the heads of extensive networks that cut across the lines of conflict, and are therefore in a unique position to carry out effective communication and form productive relationships.

Michelle Maiese is a graduate student of Philosophy at the University of Colorado, Boulder and is a part of the research staff at the Conflict Research Consortium. Michelle Maiese is a contributor to Beyond Intractability which is an online “encyclopedia” compiling easy-to-understand essays on almost 400 topics which explain the dynamics of conflict along with available options for promoting more constructive approaches.