Does Authority Matter In Leadership?

January 4, 2013

I’ve heard it said many times, “you can be a leader no matter what position you are in”.  It’s hard to argue with that statement!  It’s a little tougher to live it out though.  Why else would so many managers feel powerless to make a difference in their organizations; let alone anyone that isn’t in an actual authority position?


Photo courtesy of Flickr – Paul Bica

It really depends on how you define the term “leader”.  Many managers confuse leadership with authority.  Here’s an example:

I used to have a manager that often complained about several members of his own team to several other members of his team.  His reasoning for doing this was that he didn’t hire them and didn’t have the authority to reprimand nor fire them.  Therefor, he felt powerless to do anything about their insubordination.  At least it felt better to vent.

What he didn’t realize is that he was building a wall of insubordination out of the bricks of dis-trust and gossip.

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There are several problems here, but the one I want to focus on is authority.  Authority is important, but it’s not everything.  In the real world, authority doesn’t always work.  People don’t always listen to the person in charge.  And sometimes, they shouldn’t.  There is a whole other post in this story, but for now let’s stick with authority.

The question is, what do you do when you either don’t have the authority or your authority isn’t working?

Fake it.

What I mean is that you have to temporarily abandon authority and use influence.  Put your sales hat on.  Learn about the person instead of the position.  Understand what drives them, what their goals are, and what is holding them back.  Focus on helping them with each of these.

Simply serve them.

The crazy thing about this approach is that by building a bridge with this person or persons and leading them across it, you will most likely gain the authority you originally needed.  When your boss sees you take this approach, there’s a good chance that the next time you need to flex your authority muscle, it will be much stronger.

In the meantime, use your new found influence to build loyalty and trust; who knows…you may not even need the authority you thought you did?

Question: Have you ever used influence in lieu of authority to get what you need?



3 responses to Does Authority Matter In Leadership?

  1. Yes, authority matters in leadership but it is the result, not the cause. Difficult situations birth true leaders, not authority.

    Leaders who keep their focus on the result, make meaningful progress, have strong relationships with team members, understand their strengths, weaknesses, desires and drivers…and also understand the “why” of what they are doing will soon find themselves bestowed with authority. Authority is typically earned after demonstration of effective leadership.

    Unfortunately authority tends to lean towards the negative side of management, punishment, rather than the positive, expertise and ability. Authority is a tool that can be difficult to wield and can have a steep learning curve, but a true leader will master its intricacies in short order.

    Lead first and be the boss second. It’s a great combo.

    Thanks for the article Bob. Great work! Keep it up!

    • Hey, thanks for the comment Steve! It’s so good to hear from you!

      “Yes, authority matters in leadership but it is the result, not the cause. Difficult situations birth true leaders, not authority.”

      Very well said! I will be tweeting that. 😉

      The only thing I’d add is that I’ve often seen (especially in technical fields) authority given to people that haven’t necessarily earned it. Because the focus is on their technical ability and not their leadership capability or potential.

      Even so, I believe that everyone can learn to be a better leader (if they want to). This is where many organizations fall short by assuming that training should be focused on technical skill. This is a big mistake that leaves ignorant bosses in place, who turn out less than dependable results; in the long-term. End of soap-box.

      What you described above is the epitome of servant leadership; which we should strive for daily in everything we do. Thanks for the reminder my friend!

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