Leading Without Authority
Or can you?
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic breaks apart a pernicious idea that keeps floating around businesses regarding leadership opportunities ‘without authority.’ We investigate what this means, whether it can actually happen, and propose some insights for success.
Over my career, I’d often be placed in situations where I was leading a project and told that “this is a great chance to demonstrate leading without authority.” It’s made to sound like a noble challenge when issued and has claims of special prowess when applied to someone’s actions. It really boils down to a fundamental lack of understanding of authority.
The Oxford dictionary definition starts with “the power or right to give orders, make decisions and enforce obedience”. I think this is where most people stop in their definition, specifically when they encounter “enforcing obedience”.
The problem is that the rest of the definition is often ignored.
This omits terms such as “delegation from one to another”, “permission”, “sanction”, “the power to influence others due to manner or knowledge”, “confidence from personal experience”, “a subject matter expert”, etc. These terms are what support the power or right as listed first in the definition. These terms are where authority derives from and how a person gains authority.
People often point to the Military as the ultimate in codified authority. Having served as an Army Officer I can testify that authority is derived from relationships with Soldiers through leadership above anything that the authority of hierarchy can provide. The hierarchy exists to define the structure of expected leadership capability, rank, reporting structure, and information flows. In a combat situation, if a poor leader loses the authority granted by the Soldiers and leans on the authority of the hierarchy, it will never provide enough support to execute the mission nor will the hierarchy typically ignore the lack of leadership. In extreme situations, a leader whose authority has been revoked has ways of being dealt with by their Soldiers.
The fact of the matter is you cannot lead (period!) without authority. The question then turns to where this authority comes from. In a group of peers, if one person takes the lead and it is accepted, the other individuals have ceded authority to their leader. This can be as short as the ability to make a point in a meeting or as long as the individuals determine is warranted. As long as a person is provided authority from the group, they can lead. This authority can have many of the words of the dictionary definition applied or very few. It can be a very loose authority or a very strict authority. It can be a very short or very long duration. Bottom line, people don’t get authority from anything else than other people.
Teams become dysfunctional through poor leadership not a lack of available authority since all authority over the team is derived from the individuals. If a person responds to your request, suggestion, or question they have ceded a level of authority to you. The duration may be short, and the level may be low but the authority is granted. Certain social constructs, organizational designs, and assignments provide expectations of how much authority the individuals are expected to grant but in the absence of slavery, even that authority is granted from the individual.
The next time someone tells you to ‘lead without authority’ you may question whether they are willing to provide full support or commitment to the effort. The next time someone tells you about an experience where they ‘led without authority’ you may question their understanding of the dynamics of leadership or whether they recognize from where their success and authority actually derive. Perhaps this sounds like an overreaction to a simple cliché, but then I’m not the type who likes to see the understanding of leadership reduced to a simple cliché.
-Part 1 of 3. Part 2 is how to Maximize Authority through Leadership - Part 1
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