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The Difference Between Authority and Leadership


The following is adapted from It’s Never Just Business.

There’s a major difference between authority and leadership. Can you articulate it?

Many people can’t, but almost everyone knows the difference when they see it.

What is authority? Telling others what to do. Why? Because that way you win.

People in authority are the top dog and get the big paycheck. They’re amazing because they’re the boss. But, just because an executive has authority over their employees doesn’t mean their employees will follow them. Here’s a great example.I’ve seen a CIO’s direct reports indirectly fire him by deciding as a team they would not follow him. This particular CIO was left with no way to report on critical activities and no way to influence the outcome of his direct reports’ critical endeavors.

This quickly became obvious to the CIO’s boss and he was fired. Now, the CIO could have used his authority to fire his direct reports before their behavior was noticed, but the business leaders and his boss held them in high esteem. The CIO’s direct reports did their jobs well for the sake of their success, not for the success of the CIO.

The point of sharing this extreme case of mutiny is to illustrate the two distinctly different ways for an executive to influence outcomes: using authority or leadership.

Leadership is a Choice

All executives have positional authority that can be leveraged to achieve results, but they can choose to use their leadership skills instead of authority to achieve results.

You don’t need any positional authority to be a successful leader.

Leadership is exponentially more powerful than authority because it involves choice. When your team members choose to follow you, they are doing so because they either feel positively connected to your vision or because they simply feel connected to you. With this connection, your team members will start consciously succeeding for you.

This shift from their minds to their hearts means that your team members will begin intentionally incorporating the things they believe will ensure your success with their approach to ensuring their success. This will result in closer alignment between their actions, your vision, and the direction you hope their efforts will take the company.

Leaders Build a Deeper Connection

Connection is the key to leadership, and there’s only one way leaders can connect with their team members: active listening, which is the opposite of listening to respond.

Given human nature, most of us listen to come up with a response or to give the right answer. With a ton of competing demands, we’re in a hurry to solve the problem.

As a leader, if you don’t take the time to listen and truly understand the problem or your team members’ concerns, your solutions will never be as effective as you would like.

Active listening involves listening to understand how your team members are feeling, how they are thinking, and how they are anchored to a topic.

Connection is about feeling understood and feeling cared for. As a leader, when you take the time to really listen, you will understand them. You will care for them. It’s impossible to truly know someone and not feel some connection to them.

You will develop a depth of understanding for your team members and it will be evident in how you lead them. The time you spend listening will always be perceived as caring for them, and it will give you the perspective you need to truly lead them.

Leadership Isn’t About You

In summary, authority is not leadership. And leadership isn’t about you; it’s about your team. It’s about enabling them to succeed and creating velocity for growth by capturing the team’s collective IQ, EQ, and their individual capacity to drive outcomes.

If you want to be a leader, you’re showing up for the team. Otherwise, you want to be a boss, and that’s cool! If that’s you, here’s what I want you to do: click out of this article, but before you do, send it to someone who understands business is about people.

For more advice on leading instead of leaning on your authority, you can find It’s Never Just Business on Amazon.