Power is not simple. Yet, leadership and authority depend on it. Leadership and authority would seem to go hand in hand. If you have a leadership position, you have authority, right? When you look at the definition of authority, Merriam-Webster describes it as “the power to give orders or make decisions : the power or right to direct or control someone or something.” That seems straightforward. If you look at the definition of leadership, it says, “the power or ability to lead other people.”
Power is in both definitions
Both leadership and authority use power to get things done. It is how power is defined and used that makes these concepts diverge. When we think of authority, we often associate it with a top-down use of power. As in, the formally identified leaders tell everyone what will change. Naturally, there are a variety of responses to this use of power, mainly variations of compliance and resistance.
Less top-down, more leadership
In a post from the HBR Blog Network, Greg Satell writes about how the change process is encouraged or hampered by the use of authority or leadership. Satell uses the examples of Dr. Semelweiss and John Antioco to show how authority does not bring about a desired change in an organization and there are probably examples from our own experiences which are similar. In fact, there have been a quite few conversations with my own clients about not getting too far ahead of their teams and/or staff. It is important to note that not every leader in an organization is necessarily the CEO or part of the executive team. People in leadership roles may have the capacity to see future trends and patterns emerging before everyone else and this is when the exercise of authority can backfire. A leader can be right and wrong at the same time as was the case for both Dr. Semelweiss and John Antioco.
Change is the illuminator of power
Turnover, customer issues, organizational missteps, new products, discovering new markets or capitalizing on trends are commonly the beginning points for leaders. In Satell’s post, he describes an authoritarian approach to be counter-productive. A top-down, “do it my way” approach, regardless of how it is packaged, does not guarantee comformity or compliance. However, Satell might be using too narrow a definition of authority. There is a marked individualistic perspective underlying his premise. In his definition of authority, a leader (typically with a c-level title or equivalent) assumes a level of influence due to title and position and issues a new policy or procedure. Here is where one’s use of power in an organization is illuminated. The new policy or procedure may be followed or ignored and the leader is left feeling his/her power is diminished and wondering if more authority or more influence would have been effective.
Today’s leadership styles exercise power in less individualistic manner
Humans are used to hierarchies of one sort or another. Even in flat organizations, there are designated people who take on leadership roles and members of these organizations respond to their direction. An authoritative approach (one that encompasses talents, resources, personnel, time and readiness) may be used for specific initiatives or projects or the overall foundation. There is more of a give-and-take in an authoritative approach. Satell writes that, “Ideas take hold in small majorities; many stop there and never go any further, but some saturate those local clusters and move on to more reluctant groups through weak ties. Eventually, a cascading effect ensues.” Underlying his point of how the buy-in of the change process is accepted is how a leader used his/her authority to exercise power and have the message sent to the eventual small majorities.
Not clear you can divorce authority and leadership (or “Why should I listen to you?”)
Satell’s point that an authoritarian approach tends to backfire is well taken. On the other hand, it is reasonable to question if his definition of “authority” is oversimplified. Currently, it is considered that the most effective leaders are collaborative, humble, fair, open-minded, ethical, encouraging and emotionally intelligent. By setting this example, they establish themselves as authorities (having expertise and power) while not having to be the only one who takes or forces action. Employees want to know what direction to go in. This is how a leader can use authority. And…the leader then fosters the spread and adoption of the change process. The most crucial underpinning here is the leader’s understanding and willingness to exert and exercise power.
Are authority and leadership too dissimilar to co-exist as put forth by Greg Satell? Join us on the Twitter chat, #KaizenBiz on Friday, April 25, 2014 at 5pm GMT/12pm ET/9am PT to add your insights and expertise to our conversation.
How is power expressed by a leader?
What changes do you observe in how we understand power, authority and leadership?
How could power be exercised without leadership or authority?
Can you divorce authority from leadership as suggested by Greg Satell? Why/Why not?
Since command-and-control is now considered an ineffective leadership style, do current leadership styles use more influence or some other type of power?