Authority and Power

A frequently asked question from my clients is: “How can I get people to honestly contribute to my project, although they do not report to me?” There is a sense of feeling powerless due to perceived lack of formal authority to demand action.

Have you ever been in that situation?

Authority versus Power
Authority versus Power

Actually, this scenario leads initially to more questions…

  • What is authority and how to utilize it most effectively?
  • How do I get the “power” I need to get the job done?
  • What is the difference between the two?
  • How to develop either one of them appropriately?

I confess there are no short answers and I shall only scratch the surface in this post. However, let’s attempt to shed some light on the heart of the matter, and maybe you can discover some ideas for yourself. While the matter may seem more clearly defined for a leader with traditional line responsibility the challenge still remains for everyone in a leadership role independent of the hierarchy level. However, project leaders face this challenge almost every day. Considering this specific situation, we generally develop project managers in the use of project management tools, scheduling tables, Gantt charts, probability models and standard deviation, to name a few, while we ignore the need for developing a quality “leadership tool box” and its related habits to utilize the tools effectivly. As stated earlier, the fact is that most managers, supervisors and team leaders in an organization are confronted with this type of a challenge in some ways every day as there are generally “grey” hierarchy areas in any organization, especially in more modern cross-functional organizational structures.

What we are talking about are two basic leadership related concepts – Authority and Power.

While they appear to be quite similar, they are fundamentally different.

Authority is generally given to a person in any leadership function and is manifested through an organization chart or some other form of decree. Consequently, we define the authority to act within a predefined framework of operation. And yes, authority provides some form of “power” to assert a specific course of action. However, I would like to claim that it has nothing to do with real power! Ideally, an effective leader does not use (or as little as possible) the authority assigned to the position!

What do I mean by that?

Let me use an example of recent history to paint the picture. While not everyone may agree with everything ever stated by Dr. Martin Luther King, I think we all can agree that he certainly was a charismatic leader in many ways. Through his leadership, he created a following in the millions to a point where people willingly risked pain, imprisonment and even death for the cause that he promoted.

Did Dr. King have any formal authority to command anyone to walk with him?

How did he get such power over those followers? This is the open secret! Power is given to an individual by those who chose to follow. It is not authority that provides true power; on the contrary, when a leader has to use authority to assert some course of action, this leader has just lost or relinquished all power. Power is actually enhanced by making others powerful.

Questions one could reflect on:

  • How to develop power?
  • How to deploy power in the most effective way?
  • How to use power most appropriately?
  • How to avoid the authority trap?
  • How does communication come into play in developing power?
  • What role does my behavior play in the context of developing power?

…and some more.

You can research more reading material about the matter at hand or you can collaborate with a professional executive coach who can certainly help you to develop and expand your leadership tool box to maximize and reach your potential. As always, your comments and questions are most welcome!

Interested and want to know more? Contact me at coach@qli-international.com  or call (864) 245-2324 and let’s talk.