The Balancing Act: Leadership vs. Authority

Do you know the difference between authority and leadership? If you answered “they’re one and the same,” then you have a lot to learn.

Today’s business environment calls for more leaders and fewer authorities. As the need for adaptive capacity becomes ever more urgent, many organizations look to authorities to solve their problems. However, this is precisely the sort of response than inhibits adaptation and can lead to stagnation and ultimately failure.

A leader may exercise authority as one aspect of their role within an organization, but a leadership style than relies solely or primarily on authority, through micromanagement of employees, is not one that is sustainable in today’s fast-paced environment.

In his book Adaptive Capacity, Juan Carlos Eichholz explains why an authoritarian leadership style is so ineffective: “excercising authority in the classical way—namely, taking charge, making the decisions, and giving instructions—doesn’t work as it used to. As the problems we face become increasingly centered on issues of adaptation, the can no longer be solved by only a few who think and a great majority who execute. And because people are more empowered, they don’t want to just follow instructions. Instead, they want to feel involved in the decision-making process.”

But despite the trend towards employee empowerment, Eichholz also acknowledges that we still tend to look for scapegoats when things go wrong, rather than taking collective responsibility. And more often than not, those blamed are the ones who are perceived to have the greatest amount of authority.

So what can you do to negotiate this balancing act between using leadership to empower others while maintaining a position of authority?

The most crucial step is to foster an organizational culture with distributed responsibility and agency. One way this can be done is by creating a culture of coaching, in which multiple levels of management receive coaching skills training.

Another way to distribute authority throughout an organization is by deliberately choosing not to exercise authority. Rather, make it clear to your employees that you expect them to think, question, plan and act independently. There are a few ways you can do this. You can establish committees to tackle various types of problems, solicit feedback from your employees, encourage risk-taking and creative problem-solving, and offer praise and encouragement whenever an employee demonstrates initiative.

There is an African proverb that says, “If you want to go faster, go alone. If you want to go further, go together.” Making decisions on your own authority is often the fastest way to get things done, but it takes leadership that incorporates the skills, opinions and decisions of others to keep an organization adaptive enough to survive and thrive in the long term.

How well do you think you’ve been balancing leadership with authority? I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me through my website, on Twitter, and on LinkedIn.

Tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *