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Maximizing Authority through Leadership - Part 2
Leading with Authority
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 is part 3 in a series on leadership. Part 1, Leading Without Authority, breaks apart a common trope and reorients a better understanding of authority. Part 2 How to Maximize Authority Through Leadership explored techniques to maximize your leadership potential through organizational alignment. This essay will explore maximizing authority through your own leadership.
I wrote this almost 10 years ago. There’s an irony here as I work through some leadership challenges today and retrospect on what could have gone better. Fundamentally my current challenge boils down to a disconnect between the sponsor and team member authority granted. It’s interesting because even knowing, and being able to author these insights, doesn’t make actually achieving them easy.
Something I might append to this essay, though it’s worth its own topic, is that stakeholders and team members who don’t recognize where authority derives, will often not understand why you are pushing for more organizational alignment, or why you are pushing for more team accountability. “We’ve never had to do that before” or “In the end, no one cares about the project planning and Jira board, it’s about the results” are clear indications that neither the organization nor the people are willing to cede the authority required to achieve the goal at that time. The challenge here is that reward structures are not aligned for Efficient Leadership. Until they are, the limited authority will always result in inefficiency.
In How to Maximize Authority Through Leadership - Part 1, we discussed four ways to maximize the authority from the sponsor. This is authority derived indirectly or outside the team1. To ensure clarity, I want to reiterate one point. Authority comes from one source; the individual. We explored this topic in Leading Without Authority and identified that authority from the individual comes through two channels; directly from the individual and indirectly through the organization2 and the sponsor.3 Now we will discuss how to maximize authority from your team by focusing directly on the individuals.
As a young officer, I was in charge of a platoon of Soldiers. As we trained up for a deployment to Iraq, three things became very clear to me.
My decisions literally had life-and-death consequences for my Soldiers.
My Soldiers were armed and capable of preventing bad decisions.
I always owed my Soldiers the why, because when the what or how failed, they’d figure it out.
My hierarchical authority based on rank, military structure, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice was inconsequential when leveraged to ask an eighteen-year-old Soldier to stack up and kick in a door in the face of an armed enemy. Leveraging only that hierarchical, or sponsor-derived authority alone might result in the second observation I made. I had to convince my Soldiers to cede additional authority to me fully knowing that they might not walk out alive but trusting, based on the history of my leadership, that if they were to make the ultimate sacrifice, it wouldn’t have been in vain. So how does one build this history of leadership to maximize individual authority?
Lead by example
The authority granted is an element of followership. Individuals will only cede the baseline authority required by the hierarchy, culture, circumstances, and personal interest in the effort. This is rarely enough to ensure success. Leading by example goes back to the dictionary definition of leadership where terms such as personal manner, recognized knowledge, personal expertise, and extensive or specialized knowledge come into play over hierarchical terms such as power, orders, and enforcement. Leading by example is returning to your team the same behaviors you desire from them but with an eye on the goal and a strategic vision to get there.
There’s a catch to leading by example where, as you mature from immediate toward senior team leadership, you have to balance the right level of hands-on involvement and what example you’re trying to set. I’ve seen too many leaders, at higher levels, who can’t let go of the details. The skill of leadership at higher levels is to create a network effect of expertise and to focus on key behavior areas lest you risk being myopic on only what you know, or pedantic on the level of detail you demand. A key part of this network effect is to enable your teams even if you lack specific skills or knowledge.
Be an Enabler
As a leader, removing obstacles lends one of the highest returns on credibility and dedication and therefore authority. If you lead by example by smashing your face into obstacles over and over and expecting the same from your team you are not enabling. Simply put, enabling is ensuring the least friction, distraction, and interference for your team throughout execution. (an idea captured in Lazy Leadership)
The proverbial sewage always flows downhill. As a leader, you must recognize that within that sewage are nuggets of gold. An enabling leader will get themselves dirty finding, cleaning, and handing ONLY the gold to the team.
Enabling is also providing leadership opportunities to your team, ceding them authority and allowing them to take proactive steps toward the vision bound by the goals and expectations.
Set and hold goals and expectations
Tie your goals and expectations for the team to the assignment definition you used to increase your authority from your customer (from part 1) to ensure unified effort in your team. Clear goal breakdown, ownership, and understanding of task interdependencies increase the team’s knowledge of the task and confidence to execute. Following this up with recognition and praise for meeting and exceeding the goals improves motivation to continue execution even in the most trying situations.
Also recognize, that as much as you are holding accountability down, you also have to hold accountability up, and across the organization. Protecting your team, ensuring they are supported and enabled by what was promised, is a crucial element of setting and holding goals and expectations and shows that you respect the team.
Give (Don’t Demand) Respect
There are a multitude of topics to cover on this one so I’ll hit on a few overlooked, yet critical elements.
Respect for time: Short, frequent, and poignant meetings4 show that you care about your team’s time. Reduction of reports and the establishment of systems that can provide proactive measures leave more time for your team members to do value-added work. Level-load the effort and hold to the roles and responsibilities even if that requires your engagement with a ‘leadership challenge’.5 This ensures, in the long term, that your entire team’s performance improves evenly and reduces imbalances in who is applying the effort.
Respect for personal issues: Get to know your team, know the birthdays, know the basics of their job and engage in small talk. This shows care about the team member and is more effective when tied to respect for time. Let the team bring their whole selves to work because you can’t separate the two, and you shouldn’t separate the two.
Respect for skills and experience: Mark a clear distinction between quantifiable skills and a team member’s perception of skills. Always strive for professional development in your team. Don’t accept or reject inputs based on the person, enable them to prove themselves right or wrong. Never discredit a person but ensure the case is proven on facts. Leverage the experience in your team for the training of others.
These aren’t an exhaustive list and there are many more flavors of respect but the key is to give, not demand respect. You can also show respect through engagement and involvement in a more personal setting by wandering around and checking in with them in informal engagements.
Management by Wandering Around
This term was coined by Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s and is still pertinent today. Walking around allows you to see the team in their environment, you can observe their engagements, and can ask them questions or hear their concerns on their turf.
There is a suggestion that this should be spontaneous but a leader is best advised to incorporate this into their standard practice. As you walk around, show respect for all the elements and you will learn skills and experience by understanding what they do and how they do it.
This is the concept of the Six Sigma Gemba walk, a structured approach to ensure you are engaging the key elements, at the point of work, that are required to ensure success.
In today’s hybrid and remote work environments, this concept requires some more adaptable adjustments. Crafting specific collaboration time, being able to observe virtual meetings, and intentionally scheduling in-person time with the groups, allow you to achieve similar results.
I’ve often heard the phrase ‘someone led without authority’ used as an accolade but this is, fundamentally, a gross misunderstanding of leadership. Nowhere in my experience have I ever been able to lead without authority.
To ensure success, I always tried to lead with the utmost authority and I did that by maximizing my authority from the external structure of sponsorship and through leadership to maximize the authority from the individuals.
These tips aren’t intended to be “5 steps” to gaining authority; they are just insights to help identify levers that I have found drive success. Leadership development is not constrained to one team or one effort but is the culmination of an entire career. The phrase ‘your reputation precedes you’ can be a huge advantage if it is based on a foundation of effective leadership. Confidence in leadership is directly correlated to the level of authority ceded by an individual whether they are the sponsor or a team member.
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Team includes but is not limited to, direct and indirect reports, peers, suppliers, and stakeholders. The team is those on whom you rely to ensure success. This is normally the subject of whom you are to ‘lead without authority.’
When an individual signs employment papers they cede authority to the established hierarchy and agree to abide by the rules, ethics, and organization of that company. A person can feely remove all authority by quitting the business. An individual can also subvert the hierarchical authority at the risk of violating the terms of employment.
Customers include, but are not limited to, either internal or external, functional or cross-functional, direct or indirect, and superior or peer.
A daily meeting that allows reporting on the previous day’s activities and looks forward to the future acts as a mechanism for both reporting and assigning. When kept to ½ hr, this frees up the remainder of the day for completing the assigned tasks knowing that accountability will be held the next morning
A leadership challenge is an individual who consumes 80% of your time and promotes the tendency to marginalize vs. engage, empower and develop. In the business climate we are in, headcount is critical and the organization cannot afford to marginalize any employee.