Leading in the Sandwich Position – Unappreciated High Performers in Middle Management


Most people associate a sandwich with something to eat. Between two slices of bread or toast, we find more or less savory fillings held in shape – pressure from the top and bottom. If we press too hard, the filling spills out on all sides. If we press too lightly, the filling falls out when we bite into the sandwich.

For leaders, the term “sandwich” carries a different meaning.
Pressure is indeed involved here, but the leader is not usually the one exerting pressure; rather, they are like the filling squeezed between two other layers.

Leading in the sandwich position is the everyday reality for almost every leader. Every leader has employees hierarchically “under” them that they manage and at least one boss above them to whom they report. Even executives and CEOs may have someone “above” them scrutinizing their actions and applying pressure accordingly.

Even though having a role as a leader can be very motivating and has many rewarding and joyful aspects, we will now delve into the darker sides.


What is a Sandwich Position in Leadership?

A sandwich position refers to the role of a leader in middle management. A leader in a sandwich position manages operational employees directly on one side and reports to (at least one) superior on the other.

The greatest challenge of “leading in the sandwich” lies in bridging the gap between the more strategic upper management and the operational level of direct employees. Moreover, these leaders face pressure from their own superiors while also receiving pressure from their employees.


Warning: The criticisms, difficulties, and challenges listed below regarding leading in the sandwich position may give the impression that holding a position in middle management is one of the worst jobs in a company.

Indeed, there are companies where lower and middle management leaders are subjected to extreme pressure and a toxic corporate and leadership culture. They are expected to achieve peak performance in a highly demotivating environment and continually drive their employees, who work under unworthy conditions, to exceed expectations.

However, in most cases, while some of these challenges exist, there are also very motivating advantages to these leadership positions.

Such is the life of a leader!


As the saying goes: “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”


And a leader who does not grow in their responsibilities will not find happiness there.

You will be able to work successfully and sustainably as a leader in the sandwich position if you are fundamentally prepared for the repeated emergence of new challenges.

Moreover, suppose you use your leadership position to improve working conditions in the sandwich position for other leaders by helping to eliminate the critical factors described here. In that case, you are a true leadership personality.

However, if you find yourself in a company where a toxic corporate culture prevails and you are the doormat for everyone in middle management, then you must personally decide why you are doing this. Or for how long you will do it and what price you will pay.


Targetter Sandwhich Position

Different Groups Expectations for Sandwich Leadership


Conflicts in the Sandwichposition – “Pressure from above, nagging from below – the sandwich position in the corporate hierarchy wears out many leaders. Middle managers are closer to the customers than their executives, but their judgment matters little to the bosses,” writes the German Newsmagazine “Der Spiegel” in the article “Middle Managers – Pack Horses of the Corporate World.”


Standing between hierarchical levels means wearing many hats simultaneously and reconciling roles that occasionally conflict with each other.

Most companies aim to operate a profitable business model. The more employees achieve on the operational level, the more profitable they can be. The sandwich manager must accept the pressure for profit.

However, this pressure cannot simply be passed directly on to all employees. Each employee must be assessed individually to consider how well they can handle the top management’s performance expectations if they are relayed directly.

If, as a leader, you now want to protect your employees because you know they have been working at their absolute limit for many months, but top management wants more, faster, and further, you are caught in a role conflict that can also be mentally highly stressful.

These role conflicts occur at all levels of leadership, and the higher the level, the greater the pressure.

Suspected Domination Knowledge

Employees often suspect that their leader has superior knowledge. Especially during change processes, it is assumed that all leaders have known for a long time what will happen in the future. What the strategies look like. Whether employees will be dismissed or how the reorganization will affect each individual employee.


Cat Axel Rittershaus



Employees suspect leaders have superior knowledge they usually do not.

In reality, leaders sometimes learn from their own employees that they are being transferred or dismissed due to reorganization.

Or the team or group leaders are informed by email at 7:30 a.m. that all employees will be informed about a rationalization program at 8:00 a.m.

Employees’ assumption that their immediate superior knows more but doesn’t tell them can lead to a critical loss of trust – even though the leader is not at fault. This is particularly problematic for the lowest leadership level of team and group leaders, who are also very closely connected with their employees.

If you are already in middle management, you know that your own boss often stumbles in the dark about the strategies of the board. This does not make the situation better, but at least you no longer suspect your superior of being dishonest.

Mental Stress for the Leader

These and similar role-related conflicts can become massive mental stress for the leader in the sandwich position, often significantly underestimated. Burnouts are a regular occurrence here.

If employees perceive these role conflicts in their own leader, it can additionally lead to employees having no interest in taking on leadership roles and preferring to stay in their current position or pursue a specialist career. 

As an executive coach, I work with leaders from top and middle management. Most of my time is often spent mentally rebuilding the leader…

Workhorse, Leader, and Strategist all at once


We must not forget that many leaders in the lower hierarchical levels also work operationally and conceptually. Often up to 80-100%. Leading their own employees and the additional duties of managing their boss and leadership circles come “on top.”

This cannot work in the long run.

On the other hand, it is precisely the characteristics of successful and effective leaders that they excel in prioritizing their time and energy correctly. Managers who use the high workload in the sandwich position to learn to organize themselves better will benefit in the long run. Professionally, personally, and healthily!

In the extremely readable book “Ride of a Lifetime” by Robert Iger, former manager of the Disney Corporation, Iger describes that the charm and challenge of his job lay precisely in this variety. He exemplifies how one day he had meetings about expanding in China, a new advertising campaign, working conditions for employees in amusement parks, and selecting new costumes for a stage show, while also speaking with stock analysts about stock developments and the 10-year strategy.


Performance Pressure of Sandwich Managers

The German Newsmagazine “Wirtschaftswoche” writes “Those working in middle management are scapegoats for superiors and figures of hate for employees. It is precisely at this position that the innovativeness and success of a company are decided.”

“Wirtschaftswoche” cites a study by Lund University (Sweden) on middle management in British universities.

A typical response was, “We hold the umbrella high so that the s*** from above doesn’t hit everyone on the head.” Another study participant said he saw his task as ensuring his employees were not continuously “bombarded from above with excrement.”


Umbrella Targetter Article


These statements suggest a toxic work environment that generally opposes a motivating work life.
The fact that a leader below top management also repeatedly “has to fend off the excrement that falls from above” is part of a manager’s job!
Especially since the assessment of whether s*** really falls from above or whether it is rather understandable demands lies in the subjective world of the leader.

Hence, some middle management leaders even cope well with this – not by resisting it, but by flexibly responding to it!


Overload: Leader Should Be an All-Rounder

I myself worked for nearly 20 years in upper management and as a managing director, leading leaders as well. And of course, I expected a lot from my leaders too.

Anyone who wants to take on a leadership position must be prepared to achieve more. And most leaders are!

A few decades ago, there were still many “breakfast directors.” Superiors who rested on their leadership position and did not lift a finger themselves. And who preferably worked very little.

However, (thanks to) all the continuous reorganization and streamlining processes, many levels of former breakfast directors have been eradicated. Truly lean organizations rely on everyone continuously performing at 100% and therefore also demand high performance from their leaders.

Demanding high performance is legitimate. However, it must be measured correctly and the requirements must be in line with the possibilities.

How we handle the pressure and new demands depends both on our attitude and our abilities and approaches. And here, one of the elementary and widespread problems comes to light:

Leaders in lower and middle management are often primarily expected to have extensive operational knowledge, while skills such as leadership, employee motivation, ability to handle criticism, or even strategic thinking & action are sometimes considered less important.


Unsuitable Promotion Criteria

This leads to the fact that in too many companies, the person promoted is still the one who brings the greatest operational / technical – expertise.

The top engineer, the mega-accurate accountant, the most productive software developer, or the all-knowing lawyer is promoted to a team leader position.

  • Whether they can handle people is often not considered in the promotion process.
  • Whether they can think strategically is not taken into account.
  • Whether they can remain calm in crises and respond reassuringly

And that’s why employees end up in leadership positions that are not suited for them.


Targetter Leading In Sandwich Position


Are the right criteria considered for promotions? 

Moreover, if their superiors also subscribe to the theory that ‘leadership is best learned in everyday situations rather than in a seminar,’ the risk of demotivating leadership increases further.

On the other hand, some leaders do not even possess basic operational qualifications but excel at self-promotion or use ‘networking’ to move up the ladder.

Therefore, the selection of leaders must be much more aligned with the criteria that will be important in everyday leadership!

It is better to promote a mediocre accountant or an average software developer if they have leadership skills and can handle both employees and superiors!

By the way, the situation is the same for promotions to higher levels. If a team leader has done a superb job, they become the head of the department.

Suddenly, almost nothing relates to operational business anymore, and they have to navigate steering committees, strategy meetings, planning sessions, and tasks like this. 

Even though they would actually be much better at leading an operational team.

The fact that the sandwich position is viewed critically is precisely because, thanks to the Peter Principle, too many leaders have reached the level of their incompetence and now pass on unfiltered and ruthless pressure downward!

The eradication of entire leadership levels because their leaders focus too much on themselves and too little on their employees, their jobs and the company is not the problem of this leadership level. The problem lies in the wrong selection of people sitting in these positions. But rather than addressing this issue, it is easier to throw out the baby with the bathwater, eliminate these levels, burden the remaining leaders with 50% more work, and then be convinced of the decision because the business continues to function without the rationalized level. Unfortunately, improvements to work processes, approval procedures, responsibilities, and employee qualifications are often overlooked in this process. Thus, instead of becoming leaner, the company becomes uncontrollably emaciated. Innovations rarely emerge this way.

Qualification Issue: 

Lack of Training for Sandwich Positions “The majority of leaders belong to middle management. They must simultaneously perform technical tasks, management tasks, and leadership tasks – they are somewhat ‘jacks of all trades,'” writes the German Newsmagazine “Die Zeit.”

Yet, even if only those individuals with the potential to become leaders are promoted to the next hierarchical level, no one is born with an arsenal of leadership methods.

Leadership must be learned!

The fact that we saw countless overwhelmed leaders, functionaries, and politicians in 2020 and 2021 is just a small example that very few people master leadership in a crisis.

During the crisis, there were also surprises as people emerged as leaders who were previously overlooked. These are the employees who possess genuine leadership qualities but failed to pass through the promotion filter before.

An interested, open, and somewhat empathetic individual can be developed into a truly effective leader when provided with the necessary fundamentals and methods.

It is not difficult to provide critical feedback if one knows the appropriate methods for feedback discussions.

It is not a problem to lead a team entirely from home if one masters the methods of remote leadership.

It is predominantly a matter of methodological knowledge and the ability to listen to lead as a coaching leader.

If finally only employees and leaders who are further promoted “upwards” into a (higher) leadership position who possess genuine leadership qualities, and if these leaders are professionally developed (just like EVERY professional athlete trains every day with their coach to get better)
→  then there would be no more lamenting about the sandwich position! The bench is empty – future leaders are missing everywhere


The fact that unsuitable employees and leaders are promoted is also due to the lack of future leaders

Anyone who recognizes in their own leader that they are constantly frustrated and can hardly achieve anything or make decisions, despite their impressive title, will seriously consider whether they need this for their own life.

And even if…

Too many leaders fail to build their own successors – Most are afraid of creating competition for themselves.

However, building a group of people who could follow in their footsteps is one of the most important tasks of a leader. Only then can truly good leaders continue to rise and ensure a good leadership climate in all sandwich positions.

However, if a leader focuses solely on making themselves irreplaceable, they hinder their own progress (if they are interested in it) and almost force their boss to promote someone less qualified – but available! 


One might assume that in middle management, good ideas are blocked both from above and below – because mediocre and poor leaders in the sandwich ensure that excellent employees on the operational level remain stuck in the mud, as they are not supported by their superiors. Because these leaders fear competition from within their own ranks.

We have discussed several times that this may be the case.


But we must consider one more thing to conclude:

If as a motivated and engaged leader in the early years of leadership activity, you experience a new management consultancy sweeping through the company every three years and earning million-dollar fees by telling the board what employees on the lower and middle management levels have known for years – but no one internally wants to hear – you will sooner or later give up in frustration!

In my experience with clients, I have never seen an external management consultancy make recommendations that have not already been demanded for years by the company’s leaders and employees. Even rationalization projects are sometimes suggested internally by employees but not pursued by sandwich leaders because it would eliminate their own leadership role.

For leadership activity in sandwich positions to become more attractive and for individuals to aspire to leadership positions that are truly suited for them, employees and leaders must be much more listened to!

After all, the lower and middle management are the information hubs of the company.

In the sandwich position, one is in direct contact with both customers and the employees who serve these customers.

And the experience that every change project fails, if the sandwich managers do not cooperate, is encountered in every single change project.


Leading n the Sandwich Position Targetter


Lead successfully and motivating in the sandwich position 

We see that leadership in the sandwich position can bring some serious problems and challenges. As mentioned earlier, not every leader in every company faces all these problems. 
In most companies, we find good, motivated, engaged leaders at all levels. And that should be our focus.


Leading in Sandwich Position

Leading in the Sandwich Position